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Screen Themes: The Stand vs American Gods vs WandaVision

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It’s a three-way dance of supernatural drama as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out three programs currently streaming.

The Stand (2020)

Created by Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell

BASED ON the dictionary-sized novel from Stephen King (published way back in 1978), The Stand tells the story of a pandemic that lays waste to the world, giving rise to two warring factions of ideologically-driven survivors. Originally adapted into a mini-series starring Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald in 1994, this is the second attempt to bring the epic to life and despite the similarity to what’s going on in the U.S. right now, The Stand is a lot less compelling than it should be.

Part of the problem lies with the meandering complexity of the novel, which spends the first few hundred pages building out well-rounded characters, focusing on the devastation that losing everyone close to you would cause. This adaptation, by contrast, draws the main characters in the broadest of sketches: there’s the down-home nice guy (James Marsden); the wise old lady (Whoopi Goldberg); the bad guy (Alexander Skarsgard); the evil temptress (Amber Heard) and the rebel with a heart of gold (Jovan Adepo, making the most of what he’s got). Greg Kinnear is also there, but it’s like he’s in a different, better show.

Taking that into account, the majority of the blame for The Stand (2020) must go to co-creators and writers Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell. Despite having worked on some decent fare in the past (Cavell was a writer on Justified and Homeland) the duo fails to imbue the series with any momentum or dramatic tension. Conversational scenes drag interminably, vital story beats are glossed over and whoever signed off on Ezra Miller’s performance as Trashcan Man should take a long hard look at themselves.

There is no doubt that Stephen King is a wildly successful author, but it can be fairly argued that he’s not very good at writing endings. To try and correct that assumption, King returned and wrote an entirely new ending to this version, but somehow still included the baffling "hand of God" bollocks from the book. In case you’re worried, that’s not a spoiler, as I literally had to search 'what just happened in The Stand?' after the penultimate episode.

American Gods season 3 (2020)

Created by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green

Another series based on a novel, American Gods takes the opposite approach toThe Stand. Written by Neil Gaiman in 2001, the original novel ran about 465 pages, yet has been played out over three seasons with little sign of ending any time soon. Told from the perspective of ex-convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), both novel and TV series tell the story of the impending war between the Old Gods and the New Gods for the soul of humanity.

The Old Gods are led by Odin (also known as Mr Wednesday), played with scenery-chewing relish by Ian McShane. Stripped of the profanity that defined his iconic portrayal of Al Swearengen, McShane commands attention whenever he is on screen — even when surrounded by great character actors like Peter Stormare, Crispin Glover and Blythe Danner. Odin’s chief nemesis and leader of the New Gods is Ms World (Dominque Jackson), commanding an ever-shifting cadre of minor deities like Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and New Media (Kahyun Kim) as they prepare for the final battle.

If this all sounds a little overblown and ridiculous, you’re right. It’s far from high art. But it’s also a lot of fun. Characters evolve and develop, most notably Ricky Whittle’s Shadow Moon – a character who could have been confused for a hat stand in the first season – and his ex-wife Laura (Emily Browning) who grew from an annoying one-note cliché to a fully rounded, sympathetic character.

It’s interesting to note that producers took the (appropriate) step of cutting Marilyn Manson out of the remainder of the season following allegations of him being an abusive dick. However, it’s worth pointing out that the character he played – a demigod named Johan – was also an abusive dick. So good casting, I guess…

WandaVision (2021)

Created by Jac Schaeffer

If you are a fan of the Marvel Universe, defined by well-muscled spandex-clad heroes and villains punching each other repeatedly, there’s a fair chance that you will HATE WandaVision. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of classic TV sitcoms and slow-burn mysteries, this may well be the show for you.

Streaming behemoth Disney+ took the bold step of releasing episodes one and two of WandaVision at the same time, then reverting to a traditional weekly release schedule for the remainder of the season. Why was this bold, you ask? Because the first two episodes were in black and white, played as almost straight homages to old-time TV sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched. While I am a fan of leads Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany, I found these episodes tedious and almost gave up on the series. Fortunately, I persevered.

Without spoiling any of the myriads of secrets of WandaVision, I can say that the series features Marvel heroes Scarlet Witch and Vision — the latter of whom is somehow alive despite being killed by Thanos. The pair appear to be travelling through time, with each episode adopting the TV conventions of a decade past, which is particularly charming when they get to the Family Ties homage midway through the season. Of course, there’s more going on than meets the eye, with a dark undercurrent and potential ramifications for the future of the broader Marvel cinematic universe.

For anyone interested in TV production, the attention paid to era-specific detail in each episode is impressive — from aspect ratio and painted backgrounds to the use of supporting characters. Occasionally uneven in terms of pacing, WandaVision will probably play better as a binge-watch over a weekend than in episodic form, but it’s worth a look for those looking for something a little different.

The Verdict

Much like the 1994 mini-series, the 2020 version of The Stand is a story of missed opportunities. It’s competently shot, decently acted and has a couple of nice set-pieces lifted directly from the book, but I can’t help thinking that it could be so much better. Oh well, bring on the 2046 version…

If you managed to get through the first two seasons of American Gods then you’ll find the third a welcome relief in terms of pacing and character development. Ian McShane is as good as he’s ever been and the origin stories of obscure gods are worth the price of admission alone. If you’ve never watched the show before but are vaguely interested, here’s a handy six-minute recap of the first two seasons.

Last but not least, WandaVision is only available to Disney+ subscribers (and pirates, I guess) so if you were interested in watching it, you probably already have. Marvel completists should know that events from the series lead to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, due out in 2022.

The Stand – 3/10

American Gods – 8/10

WandaVision – 7/10

The Stand and American Gods are currently available on Amazon Prime Video. WandaVision is now streaming on Disney+.

John Turnbull is Independent Australia's entertainment editor, a writer, balloon pilot and tattoo aficionado.

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