'The Stand' Doesn't Deliver

STEPHEN KING'S THE STAND" DOESN'T offer much insight into the epic struggle of good and evil, but it does answer lesser questions like, What ever happened to Molly Ringwald? The actress plays Fran Goldsmith, one of a handful of Americans who survive a modern-day plague, fend off Satan and make a pilgrimage to the new Promised Land. (It turns out to be Boulder, Colo.) At the end of this dull, meandering mini-series, which is based on Stephen King's 1,100-page best seller, Fran sobs to her boyfriend Stu Redman (Gary Sinise), "I have this big black hole in the middle of me. I can't help thinking, 'What did we all do this for?"' Ask your agent.

"The Stand," a four-episode saga that begins airing on May 8 on ABC, opens with a lethal "superflu" virus leaking out of a military lab and cutting a wide swath through Arnette, Texas. The army quarantines the townspeople and declares martial law. But soon most of the country is dying and one distraught general is misquoting Yeats, or "Yeets," as he calls him: "Things fall apart; the center does not hold." That's the good part. Then the survivors struggle to create a new world order, some following the benevolent prophetess Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee), some falling under the sway of the smarmy and demonic Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan). Mother Abigail sits on her front porch in Nebraska, singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"; Flagg drinks gin-and-tonics in Vegas.

There's no law that says Stephen King has to be scary-that he can't wax about God and brotherhood-but perhaps there should be. With the exception of some gnarly corpses and a handful of devilish special effects, there are surprisingly few jolts to be had here. Mother Abigail's followers barbecue and bond: Rob Lowe, for example, plays a deaf-mute who befriends a kindly retarded man (Bill Fagerbakke). Flagg's disciples arm for war. After eight long hours, there's a bizarre climax in Las Vegas, which features a nuclear bomb and a cameo appearance by "the hand of God."

Director Mick Garris and King, who wrote the teleplay and appears as one of Mother Abigail's devotees, have attempted a Bible-size drama, but no real revelations are at hand. "The Stand" suggests that most Americans would rather live in a universe governed by God than one governed by somebody known as "His Infernal Majesty"-and who are we to argue with that? The performances are much more interesting. Miguel Ferrer turns in a nifty, conflicted role as Flagg's deputy; Laura San Giacomo does a vampy, B-movie-ish turn as his kept woman. And Sinise is terrific as the everyman hero Stu-he's the one person we can relate to when everything gets a little strange. At one point, Mother Abigail intones, "The beast is loose in the streets of Bethlehem! The rats are in the corn!" To which Stu says, "I don't follow you, ma'am." Well, Stu, you're not alone.

PHOTOS: The God squad: Ringwald and Sinise prepare to neck, King on a pilgrimage