HBO’s Station Eleven Imagines a Plague Much Harder to Recover from than COVID-19

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  • American Auto. NBC. Monday, December 13, 10 p.m.
  • Grand Crew. NBC. Tuesday, December 14, 8 p.m.
  • Station Eleven. Available Thursday, December 16, on HBO Max.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There are vague reports of a flu outbreak in Asia and Europe. Then somebody gets off an overseas flight at an American airport. He’s coughing a bit. Next thing you know, hospitals are overflowing and people are dying by the thousands. And it just seems to get worse.

Station Eleven, HBO Max’s new miniseries about life after a pandemic apocalypse, is no cheapie ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation flick. The novel by Emily St. John Mandel on which it’s based was published in 2014, and the loosely adapted show went into production in January 2020, months before the COVID-19 lockdown. And brutal as the death toll has been (5.3 million worldwide as I write this), it’s a case of the sniffles compared to the apocalyptic outbreak in Station Eleven, which depopulates much of the world.

But whatever the dissimilarities, it’s impossible to avoid at least a small case of the what-if willies while watching Station Eleven, particularly its first episode. Though the show is principally concerned with the long-term aftermath of the flu and is by no means a big-budget disaster flick, it uses a few deft strokes to skillfully evoke the sensation of a civilization falling apart at seams.

The show starts innocuously enough—an actor collapses and dies onstage in Chicago of an apparent heart attack during a performance of King Lear. In the tumult that follows, the child actress Kirsten (Matilda Lawler, Evil) who plays one of Lear’s daughters can’t reach her parents to pick her up, and a kindly stranger in the audience named Jeevan (Himesh Patel, the Beatles wannabe of Yesterday) who lives near her offers to escort her home. Midway there, he gets a call from his sister, an ER doctor, who asks ominously: “Have you heard about this flu?” From there, a series of spare but terrifying images cascade across the screen: desolate streets, empty stores, and jumbled lines of deserted cars outside hospitals. The final gut-punch is a texted reply to a call from character who has been repeatedly calling her father’s cell phone. The phone has been found on a corpse at the city morgue, the text says, and adds, with mortal finality: “DON’T COME HERE.”

What follows is not always clear. The tight plotting and procession of the first episode quickly dissolves into a determinedly non-chronologic screenplay that skips randomly among at least three time-lines (the immediate days of the outbreak, a change of scenery two years later, and the more settled landscape of 20 years in the future). Scenes often change at the pace—and, often, coherence—of a 1981 J. Geils Band video, with the soundtrack from one sometimes running over another. The show’s first three episodes (what I was able to watch of the 10 total) are less a narrative tale than a connect-the-dots workbook.

And yet, there’s an appealing undertone to Station Eleven, a sense that most of the remnants of the human race want more than mere survival. They want to reconnect, to create a society and a culture. In the show’s 20-year timeline, the now-adult Kirsten has joined a troupe of Shakespearean actors who travel a circuit in the Midwest, performing for ragged little settlements that compensate for their small numbers with rabid enthusiasm. “We try to make the world make sense,” Kirsten (played as an adult by Mackenzie Davis of Halt and Catch Fire).

In many ways, the widespread human decency of Station Eleven is the polar opposite of most post-apocalyptic tales—for instance, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and its film version, in which the roads of a nuked America are mostly roamed by gangs of hungry cannibals. That’s not to say the world of Station Eleven is some kind of hippie nirvana. It has an underbelly sufficiently dark that grown-up Kirsten’s hands sport a generous number of the tattoo equivalents of gun-stock notches, keepsakes of her capable work with knives. There’s also a pervasive feeling that someone—or something—is watching. And what’s that mysterious comic book to which Kirsten keeps consulting as if it’s a training manual?

But mostly the timbre of Station Eleven is set by those opening scenes Lawler and Patel, whose unsentimental tenderness is quiet testimony to what excellent actors the pair of them are. In a world, both on-screen and off-, that still echoes with Rodney King’s shout of “Can’t we all just get along?, they answer, quietly, “Yes, we can.”

Station Eleven is one of three series premiering this week that were intended to be on the air during the 2020-21 television season but got knocked for a loop by COVID-19. The other two are sitcoms, getting a sneak peek in the idle TV days before joining the regular NBC schedule next year.

The welcome addition is American Auto, another workplace comedy from Justin Spitzer, creator of the offbeat Walmart send-up Superstore. And then there’s Grand Crew, a black bougie version of Cheers in which Cliff and Norm and the gang drink at a wine bar and spend much of their time stealing one another’s kambucha.

American Auto is set at a troubled Detroit auto company that’s swirling the drain after the catastrophic flop of  its new self-driving car, which turns out to run down black pedestrians because its optical-scanning equipment was only tested on white mannequins. (The designer insists the car isn’t racist: “It hit Indian folk, too.”)

Looking for a new president, the company reaches outside the original family ownership for the first time, bringing in a hotshot corporate shark from the pharma industry (Ana Gasteyer of SNL fame) who unfortunately has never heard, much less learned to pronounce, the word “chassis.” Her business aphorisms run along the lines of “You don’t start with boner pills, you start with hypertension, work your way up to boners.” Worse yet, she inherits a management team whose rampant greed, overwrought ambition, and dumbfounding stupidity is what ran the company into the ground. “The most tech I know how to use is my hair curler and my vibrator,” blithely confesses one of her aides.

Like Gasteyer, the rest of American Auto‘s cast—including Harriet Dyer (The Invisible Man) as a promiscuous publicist, Jon Barinholtz (Superstore) as a corporate heirhead and Tye White (NCIS: Los Angeles) as a bemused assembly-line worker yanked up into management so there will be at least one person there who knows something about cars—is uniformly hilarious.

But the laughs come zooming out of all directions on American Auto—for instance, a whiteboard off in the corner of one scene that lists possible additions to the next model, including “toilet bowls under seats” and “hamsters in tires.” Not to mention that the show’s theme song, for no reason I can figure out, is a few bars snatched from Frankie Lymon’s 1956 anthem I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.

Quite the opposite of American Auto‘s sheer looniness, Grand Crew seems intent on redefining the word “tepid.” The characters are all upwardly bound but relentlessly uninteresting  residents of Los Angeles’ hipster Silver Lake neighborhood—unless your idea of “interesting” is metrosexual debates over what’s unmanly (consensus: crying naked in the bathroom after viewing a Paddington Bear movie) or the relative merits of single- and double-ply toilet paper (consensus: why are you watching?)

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