Just what we need: another show about a killer virus wiping out much of humanity. At least this time Shakespeare survives.
What’s left of the world, in the upper Midwest anyway, is a stage for the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag caravan of performers in Station Eleven, a disjointed but at times transcendent 10-part adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed novel. (The first three episodes, which crisscross a 20-year timeline, premiere Thursday, with the remainder dropping in batches over the next four weeks.)
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The series opens with an ill-fated production of King Lear (starring a short-lived Gael Garcia Bernal) on the night the world mostly ends, but Hamlet is the main event, metaphorically and literally, when the story picks up two decades later. Uniting these threads is Kirsten, first seen as a child actor (the terrific Matilda Lawler) left waiting in the wings as disaster looms, then in the future as the Symphony’s star player, currently headlining as the Melancholy Dane, played by Halt and Catch Fire‘s mercurial Mackenzie Davis.
Kirsten is fiercely protective of her troupe after they cross paths with a self-styled Prophet (Daniel Zovatto) whose “There is no before” gospel derives from a ponderous sci-fi graphic novel titled Station Eleven. The book’s peculiar genesis is one of many backstories linking the large cast of characters, including an aloof movie star (Caitlin FitzGerald) stranded in a regional airport that becomes a microcosm of society, and the likable Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who became little Kirsten’s inadvertent caretaker in the plague’s early days.
“So pretentious!” Jeevan howls about Station Eleven—the comic book, not the series—late in the story, and I’m inclined to agree, although I’d like to believe that when the worst happens, the world will cling to the connective power of art rather than succumb to humanity’s worst instincts, as we too frequently see in series like The Walking Dead. In series creator Patrick Somerville’s (Maniac, Made for Love) vision, there may be zealots, but no zombies.
On the plus side, Station Eleven is one of the few post-apocalyptic shows where all’s (almost) well that ends well.
Station Eleven, Limited Series Premiere, Thursday, December 16, HBO Max