Reading Time: 8 minutes

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Most of the people in my life who I respect creatively have talked to me about Station Eleven. They know I love science fiction and the post-apocalypse (the genre, not the concept). They tell me that it comforted them after a long and dark holiday period. They said the concept of people surviving, then thriving, through a pandemic gave them hope in these times.

This makes Station Eleven a noble work, to connect with so many at a time when they needed it.

I only wish I had been one of them.

Station Eleven follows a wide cast of characters both before and after a global pandemic kills 99% of the population. Kirsten Raymond, a former child actress, is part of a band of actors called the Traveling Symphony, who circle around Lake Michigan bringing Shakespeare to a broken world. An enigmatic figure known as The Prophet shows up, and as the tension rises, we bounce to before and after the end of the world.

To criticize a work as complicated and critically acclaimed as Station Eleven while not coming across as a contrarian, I decided to segment this review into easily digestible parts. What connected with me, and what didn’t. This is a big, thoughtful work. It deserves thought and care when it comes to my explanation as to why I believe it could have been a much greater piece of art.

What worked for me

The People

  • Patrick Somerville is the showrunner. He wrote on The Leftovers and adapted Made For Love. A literary mind who cares about his source material.
  • Hiro Murai is the director. He could film my root canal, get it distributed through A24, and have the critics saying that it was “a marvel of visual invention”.
  • Mackenzie Davis is the star. She’s great in everything she’s ever been in. Watch Halt and Catch Fire.
  • Lori Petty in a big role! Tank Girl herself! Kit! She taught Johnny Utah how to surf!
  • The writing staff includes Cord Jefferson. He wrote one of the best episodes of television with Watchmen‘s “This Extraordinary Being“. (Also, one of my best friends is in love with him. I don’t know what that’s worth critically, but thought I should mention it).
  • Gael Garcia Bernal play a pivotal role. He might be my favorite actor. He would play the new dental crown in Hiro Murai’s Root Canal and get a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
She helped free Willy! Courtesy of HBO.

The Look

The opening shot of this series is a post-apocalyptic theatre, overrun with weeds and wet with rain. It is so sumptuously textured that your mind runs wild with the possibilities for another upcoming HBO show, The Last of Us.

The creators of this show wanted to show the beauty and the devastation at the end of the world, and they have roundly succeeded. There isn’t a shot in this show that isn’t dripping with soft, natural light and production designed to perfection. This is a show you could put on in the background at fancy parties. It’s artwork.

It sets the visual standard by which other shows should be judged.

What didn’t work for me

“An embossed carbuncle”

When people imagine Shakespeare, they think of Romeo at the balcony, Hamlet holding his father’s skull, or another half dozen soliloquies and monologues. It’s so prevalent that people believe that’s all Shakespeare is a series of poetic paragraphs spoken towards the middle distance.

The characters in Station Eleven believe this as well. They do the thing that many people who did a Shakespearean play in college or high school will often do. They will recite lines from Shakespeare, at length, and unprompted.

I believe that reciting text, at length, to an unsuspecting audience, such as a group of friends at a social gathering, is akin to hostage-taking. When someone is halfway through an esoteric passage that they specifically put to memory because it was esoteric, and they have that lilting smirk on their face as they bask in the glow of their knowing, it feels like you have a verbal gun pressed up to the back of your head.

Station Eleven is a constant, IV-drip of monologues. They happen so often that you assume that this is how the world speaks. Dialogue is a series of non-sequiturs and half-finished anecdotes. It’s why it feels like none of the characters have relationships. They’re not connected. They often say they are. But there isn’t a moment of genuine contact between any of the actors, and it’s because the dialogue doesn’t allow it. Every interaction is two Folger Editions of Shakespeare bumping up against one another with a few quips taken from a New York penthouse dinner party.

There is not a sincere, genuine moment in Station Eleven that is not undercut by false poeticism. Every time you feel characters about to connect, a line of dialogue that sounds good on paper gets in their way. At a highly dramatic, pivotal moment in the show, two characters are reunited. I was excited even by the possibility of them reuniting. But when the moment came it was flat, unfeeling. Perfunctory.

I think I know why.

Every time you feel characters about to connect, a line of dialogue that sounds good on paper gets in their way.

The source material

I read most of Emily St. John Mandel’s book, Station Eleven, on the recommendation of a coworker. I lied to that coworker and told her that I enjoyed the book. Maybe I thought it would be the polite thing to do.

As it’s grown in popularity, I’ve tried to put into words why I disliked it so much, and I think I’ve figured it out.

Around the same time, there were a series of novels written by “literary” authors who were taking on genre fiction, i.e. horror, pulp crime, science fiction, and “elevating” them. The best of these were novels like The Passage by Justin Cronin, where the author used his character craft to deepen the genre, and Zone One by Colson Whitehead, who used his high-level mind to create a post-modern novel out the zombie story. There were a wave of these books that came out around the same time, where literary professors and authors would descend from the literary heavens to turn trash into treasure.

Station Eleven was one of those books.

While the book is ostensibly “post-apocalyptic”, it treats its genre with disdain. It’s post-“post-apocalyptic”. It only wants to interact with the genre so much as it allows for a theatrical troupe to become central to the world.

The “post-apocalyptic” genre wipes the slate clean, reshapes the world, and raises the stakes. Station Eleven and all of its character treated the apocalypse with the ironic distance of a mumblecore movie (if that sounds harsh, a character says almost exactly that as the world is ending).

The book was too smart and too above something as uncouth as the apocalypse. It says something that, while the cast is diverse, almost all of them come from some kind of money. This is an apocalypse of the privileged, of the people who as “better than this”. And as much as the show tries to strain at the book’s confines, it is mired in this same ironic detachment.

A pivotal scene early on shows doctors dealing with the avalanche of the dead. It is an understatement to say that their reaction to it is not world’s away from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. If this was one moment, you could pin it to the emotional distance that doctors have even during times of horror. But then every single character in this show reacts in the same way. Only Himesh Patel’s Jeevan has any semblance of a human reaction to the end of the world.

If Station Eleven the show fails, it’s because Station Eleven the book fails.

Delicious scenery. Courtesy of HBO.

“I remember damage”

The central crux of Station Eleven is a fascinating one. What is the importance of art?

That’s been a low-roiling rallying cry during the pandemic. We have relied on art to keep us sane. If Station Eleven feels prescient in any way, it’s because this ragtag group of characters are bringing connection through art into a broken world.

There are two pieces of art that anchor this theme, one new, and one old. The first is the aforementioned productions of Shakespeare. The other is a fictional graphic novel called Station Eleven.

Station Eleven, the graphic novel, touches two different characters in very different ways. It shows us how anything can be interpreted differently based on the interpreter. There’s real depth to this choice.

It’s a brave show whose premise hinges on a fictional piece of art. Even braver when that piece of art is life-changing and inspirational. To make us feel the way the characters do, the art has to be as good as they say it is.

This is the same issue that movies and shows that explore comedy run into. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip didn’t work because the fictional SNL skits they wrote were not good. Punchline is a difficult movie to rewatch because it’s average standup. 30 Rock got it right. Don’t try and write good sketches. Make them so bad they’re a joke.

The graphic novel in Station Eleven is not a good graphic novel. It’s not interestingly drawn enough and the story and dialogue make no sense. And it’s discussed and circled back to endlessly throughout the show. Snippets of dialogue are taken from this fictional book are repeated to us so often that we mistake volume for importance. This is a book that’s meant to be the saving grace of multiple characters. And it’s not good. In fact, it reminded me of another apocalyptic piece of art.

Prophetic. Courtesy of Sony.

In the Roland Emmerich disaster film 2012, John Cusack plays a down on his luck science fiction writer. When the Mayan-foretold end of the world shows up, his novel, Farewell Atlantis, becomes prophetic. In the parlance of a younger generation, Station Eleven has big 2012 vibes, but with an author who got a PhD in English and insists you refer to them as “Doctor”. These are not the touchstones one should be drawing upon when talking about the art that will save humanity.

Then there is the Shakespeare itself. I am not a Shakespeare expert. Although I am an actor, I have been mocked by fellow actors for my lack of knowledge of his work. But I’ve tried to educate myself. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some incredible productions of Shakespeare. Quite possibly the greatest I have seen (outside of anything with Mark Rylance), is the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz’s production of Hamlet. It’s raw, real, and does the thing that excellent productions of Shakespeare do: it makes you hear the words and feel the characters. Shakespeare is not about monologues spoken to the middle distance. It’s about mythical characters being played as real. It’s about connection.

Hamlet plays a major plot point in Station Eleven. It’s a swelling, climactic moment that’s supposed to be full of drama. And it falls flat, because it’s not performed well.

It’s a hard ask to put together a grand, gorgeous-looking production, partially filmed during COVID, while also doing what few theatrical productions have ever been able to achieve: do Shakespeare well. So I am sympathetic to the sheer textural complexity that Station Eleven is wrestling with. It’s worthwhile merely in the attempt.

But when the most important character moments hinge on connecting with a piece of work, that work needs to matter to the characters, and it needs to matter to the audience. I believed that it mattered to neither.

Courtesy of HBO.

Good Night, Sweet Prince

I live for things like Station Eleven. There is not a molecule in this show or its conception that I can disagree with. The central theme of art-as-transformative is one I hold dear. This has everything I want in a large-scale production and more.

Yet I found myself empty at the end. I watched great moments fall flat because, at the root, the show cannot meet its own stakes. Its characters drift past one another on well-written words. The show is too busy focusing on the grandeur of the world to care about earning its catharsis. The inspiration that others have felt seeing this show I wanted for my own. And there were moments that came very close. But even now the memory of Station Eleven leaves me. I cannot remember characters I never cared about.

There is a Shakespeare quote about memory that I find apt :

“There’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year”.

I do not believe Station Eleven will outlive itself.

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Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...