Review: ‘Station Eleven’ is an engrossing show that demands attention

station eleven hbo max review

Station Eleven requires audiences to pay attention. Made by Paramount Studios, released on HBO Max, and split into ten episodes, this adaptation by Patrick Somerville offers up a dramatic tapestry of considerable depth for those who love meandering timelines. Spanning a twenty-year time period encompassing flu outbreaks, population obliteration, and then recovery, Station Eleven is engrossing stuff.

This adaptation features a strong cast of sixteen principal players including Gael Garcia Bernal, Mackenzie Davis, and Lori Petty, and it eloquently draws together multiple storylines. From deserted scrubland to high-rise urban areas, this show takes its time unpacking an intricate narrative across numerous continents. From the rapid spread of an undisclosed flu variant to its ravaging aftermath, Patrick Somerville ensures this remains an ensemble effort.

In the opening four episodes, audiences are introduced to a theatrical troupe of Shakespearean players, overseen by Petty as the conductor, an eccentric bohemian madam, who is at once eclectic yet accessible. Elsewhere within this group sits Kirsten, played by MacKenzie Davis, remaining pivotal to both plot and personal relationships throughout. Danielle Deadwyler, playing Miranda Carroll, is another standout, who displays a supreme level of emotional detachment at crucial points.

That separation, coupled with an unflinching honesty, makes her performance critical to the success of this show. Whether that involves making a dinner party statement involving arson, or having an immeasurable impact on future events, her contribution carries weight. Elsewhere, Himesh Patel also brings plenty to the table as Jeevan in those early episodes. Going from the ultimate underachiever to a survivalist with new found levels of responsibility, his transformation gives this crisis credence. However, beyond the inherent drama of interdependence which defines this show, Station Eleven also manages to explore other pertinent issues. Issues which might feel a little on point for some people, but nonetheless topics worth tackling.

This is very much a series where interactions and minor details are essential to making sense of events. Storylines overlap then double back on each other, whilst also playing out from differing perspectives. That being said, Station Eleven is also about the rejuvenation of civilization and how life gets restored, rather than dwelling on the more morbid details.

In many ways, the absence of human contact and a lack of technological connections hits home hardest. It forces people back on the road in search of company and comfort — a situation most people in modern societies actively shun, either for pandemic reasons or personal preference. What also comes through is a sense of universal acceptance through necessity, which comes about in this post-apocalyptic world.

Such is the breadth of Station Eleven that conventional methods of construction are superseded by something else. There are flashbacks and intentional thematic replications, but within three hours, performances, scripts and locations cease to be essential. This series feels more like an academic thesis in its approach to story, as overlapping moments in time slot together seamlessly.

Individual praise is superfluous when faced with a narrative working on so many different levels simultaneously. For that reason, the measure of success for Station Eleven requires a different criteria — one that looks beyond the staggering production design by Ruth Ammon, or any other creative contributions to something more. In this case that would be the novelist’s intentions and how faithfully they have been achieved.

Emily St. John Mandel wanted to explore the idea of absence in Station Eleven, whether that was a lack of basic amenities or people as a whole. What Somerville has managed to draw from this source material comes close to achieving that. There is a depth of perception and underlying drama, that strikes the balance between intellectual inquiry and mainstream entertainment.  A trick which few shows have managed to consistently pull off without feeling pedestrian or overly elaborate.

Pacing, characterization and plot are cleverly metered out and timelines are merged or divergent dependent upon need. These are all big characters and yet there is minimal grandstanding, as thematic impetuousness takes precedence over distracting set pieces. However, early episodes are quick to establish time and place through numerous details, that ultimately ensure everything remains cohesive.

In recent memory, only Amazon’s Tales from the Loop achieved a similar feel across fluctuating timelines, by demonstrating the far-reaching effects of individual encounters. Station Eleven does more of the same but on a global scale, using a pandemic plot point rather than leaning into time travel anomalies. However, as comparison pieces both shows have something intriguing to say about the human condition.            

TV Review: 'Station Eleven'

This post-apocalytic melodrama is a meandering character study of pandemic proportions, with a strong cast of ensemble players.