We’re seeing more series adaptations of novels after the success of Game of Thrones, with Ron Moore turning Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books into an ongoing show for Starz and the fantastic comics writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Saga) bringing Stephen King’s 2009 book Under the Dome to CBS. The novel’s a 1000-page monster with plenty of material, and the scenario suits a serialised TV show. When an invisible dome inexplicably descends around a small town and seals the residents inside, the impact on individuals and the community is going to be varied and destructive. Will a network show aimed at a wide audience properly delve into the insidious horrors the dome might cause?
That’s hard to tell from the pilot, but there’s a toothlessness to it that doesn’t bode well. We begin, however, with a promisingly eerie shot of a crow chick emerging from its egg, the camera rendering it macabre rather than life-affirming. The mother crow then flies into the woods and passes a handsome stranger (Mike Vogel), who we later learn is nicknamed Barbie, burying a man’s body in the woods. For an opening scene it’s evocative and mysterious, no doubt thanks to the direction from Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That the lead with the chiselled good looks is burying a corpse is a welcome subversion, but he’s probably got a really good reason. Damn.
We’re quickly shunted off to two teenagers in bed in nearby Chester’s Mill, the boy (Alexander Koch) confessing his love to his surprised girlfriend (). The scene is dull and rote (you’ll be mouthing ‘I love you’ seconds before Koch says it) until it takes a dark turn, as the boy grabs her wrist when she tries to leave, frustrated at her dismissing the depth of his feelings. Between this and the opening, things aren’t right in this small town from the get-go. Vaughan fortunately isn’t making us nauseous with an idyllic small town where everyone’s happy and gets along, only to have their lives turned upside down when the bad stuff comes and only then do we find out that someone’s a murderer and that other guy robbed a bank once.
We then meet ‘Big Jim’ Rennie, who some handy exposition explains is a local used car dealer and councilman running for re-election. Rennie is played by the excellent Dean Norris in his first TV role after Breaking Bad (Under the Dome was shot after Bad’s forthcoming final episodes), and he could either lift this show up or make no difference at all, just as Deadwood‘s Gerald McRaney couldn’t make Jericho interesting. We come to learn that Rennie is the jovial but sinister small-town schemer figure in this particular small-town disaster story, and he’s connected to a mystery established in the first act. Local newspaper editor Julia Shumway (Rachelle LeFevre) visits a woman who’s noticed a bunch of propane trucks making deliveries in the woods across the road and got a spooked response from local sheriff Duke (Jeff Fahey) when she asked about it.
And then the dome comes down over all this local intrigue, trapping it inside for our entertainment. Barbie is trying to flee the town after his woodland escapades, but crashes his car so his story doesn’t escape. We then hear lots of rumbling before the dome slams to the ground nearby, bisecting an unfortunate cow lengthways. We then get to enjoy the immediate logical but bizarre incidents that the dome would cause as we say ‘oh, of course’ as each terrible thing happens, because we’re all cold and heartless. A crop plane crashes into it and explodes above Barbie and local smart teen Joe (Colin Ford), debris and a random severed arm falling to the ground. Birds die from smashing into it from far above and fall to the ground next to them. And after Barbie stops a fire engine from slamming into the dome, a firefighter gets too excited and runs straight into it, making Parks and Recreation‘s Andy Dwyer proud.
The effects of the dome aren’t just the obvious smashy ones. Sound can’t penetrate or escape it, and the only radio signal is a faint and eerie noise that sounds like Bjork, according to radio station engineer Dodee (Jolene Purdy). The most intriguing consequence is when two teenagers, including Joe, are struck by seizures, causing them to foam at the mouth and ramble cryptic nonsense. Joe also raises the sensible questions of how the dome is being powered, and whether the source might be inside with them.
I’m pleased that shows like this empower young people with these intelligent queries but still annoyed that the adult protagonists don’t seem to care enough or be properly impressed by the craziness of what’s happening to them. If I were in Barbie’s situation and I saw a cow suddenly carved in half by an invisible force, my face would contort into a dozen baffled and horrified expressions that would win me an Oscar if I was in a movie. But Barbie’s too ruggedly handsome for that, so he just approaches it bravely and curiously, determined to not be too visibly fazed even though it would make him more relatable. Other characters are all preternaturally self-possessed, such as when Barbie and Robertson’s Angie meet and discuss their mystifying circumstances with cool and confident aplomb. Under the Dome is one of those dramas that doesn’t want us to get too distressed that we might switch off, so the performances don’t convey the magnitude of the crisis, and so in turn it doesn’t feel as compelling as it really should.
Fortunately, this isn’t yet a show where everyone is stupid. Norris’s Rennie and Fahey’s Duke seem eminently competent, and Barbie has the drifter-who’s-a-leader thing down. Rennie and Duke also seem to have some small-town corruption in their recent past, which we’re told is unrelated to the dome. It probably is, but even if it’s not, it’s no doubt going to be one of many triggers that set the townspeople against each other. Vaughan has Angie tell a beguiling story about goldfish, which starts as a lame anecdote but ends with one goldfish eating the other in its bowl when it gets sick. If this were a cable show, you could expect an episode called ‘Goldfish’ somewhere down the line, enticing us with its cheeky mundanity.
On that note, let’s ponder that Under the Dome was originally developed for Showtime before moving to CBS. Would that version have been less slick and more menacing? Homeland‘s dialogue is about on par with this despite the mystifying raves that show received, so this may still be the best version of Under the Dome we were going to get.
The one truly wearying storyline is about Angie and her boyfriend, the troubled Junior (ah, small town cliches…). That unsettling first scene sadly turns into a familiar jealous, irrational, violent boyfriend story, with a fallout shelter twist. Calling a story about violence against women ‘familiar’ sucks, I know, but shows like this have been turning a genuinely horrific social issue into a convenient, meaningless plot device since long before Under the Dome came along. Any ambivalence it evokes is a sad reflection of how entertainment underserves issues like this; if Under the Dome had explored it in an authentic, unsettling, and probing way rather than just to generate story conflict like in a bad horror film, then the subplot might be both compelling and meaningful.
So although Junior dubiously claims to be the only one who understands what’s happening in Chester’s Mill, the storyline otherwise isn’t a natural consequence of the dome falling, which all of them should be. Instead, it’s shoehorned-in drama, the kind Independence Day (and probably its forthcoming, painfully misguided sequel – hello, arbitrary dig at an unrelated project) would be proud to call its own. Feel free to fall asleep during this scenes unless it goes somewhere unexpected in future episodes.
Under the Dome has just enough elements to make it worth following for now, and some distinctive stylistic flourishes that will hopefully last beyond Oplev’s pilot. The nature of the dome, the seizures it causes, and the eerie radio signal are decent mysteries, just inexplicable enough to not be boring. And if the show has the guts to show just how far trapped people will go when the pressure and isolation becomes too much to handle, then we could be in for a gripping story where much social fabric is rent. Norris is going to be MVP in that type of story, and hopefully the script gives him enough material to work with. Jeff Fahey too, although the final scene begs the question of why he’s ‘with Jeff Fahey’ in the credits. I’d assume it’s a trick to make us think anyone could leave the show, but not enough people know who Jeff Fahey is, so I’m sure he’s back next week.
The test of this show’s future merit will, of course, be the role of the beautiful people. There are quite a few beautiful people in this show. Will the actors be given gritty, unexpected material that subverts our expectations that their beauty will stop them being uncompromising or remotely engaging? Or will they continue to be passive observers while we scream at the screen for them to actually react to something, dammit. Will Under the Dome score a rare pass on the Beautiful People Test, like Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica? Or will we just wish they’d remade the show with Dean Norris and a female actor’s actor in the lead roles, like Mary McDonnell or someone like that?
Let’s find out next week. CBS are giving us 13 episodes this year, refusing to commit to whether an ongoing series or a limited run was their plan all along. But the first episode rated excellently, so expect Under the Dome to stick around, unless the show actually becomes brutal, unremitting, and interesting and consequently gets cancelled.