Under the Dome has rapidly become one of those shows that tells you it matters without demonstrating why. It has a high concept and assembles a bunch of characters who react to the high concept in sensible and not-so-sensible ways, but it just sits there, a moving diorama built from half-hearted characterisation and dialogue so stale that it actively pushes you away.
Meaning it’s pretty much an American network genre show, of course. In recent years, only Lost and, to a lesser extent, Fringe have created a genuine sense of place and injected some nuance and resonance. Lost managed to right from the pilot, with some quiet, contemplative sequences and characters who didn’t always spell out their feelings unambiguously. Maybe that texture has successfully been eradicated from network TV in the intervening nine years, because Under the Dome fundamentally needs some but doesn’t seem to have time for any. The story conflicts and character roles have to be established and furthered as quickly as possible, but who wants to watch the TV equivalent of assembling an IKEA flatpack?
But a couple of the mysteries and characters hold a little promise, so let’s stay positive. Recaps shouldn’t be too gloomy.
‘The Fire’ opens with a flashback to Barbie confronting Julia’s Husband, whose body he was burying last week. That gathering mystery now gets harpooned as we discover that Barbie’s just collecting a debt Julia’s Husband owes to his boss. JH pulls a gun, they fight, and the gun accidentally gets unloaded into JH’s chest. We can now see where this story is going: Barbie eventually has to confess to Julia, who discovers her husband’s dodgy dealings but still gets mad at Barbie and their burgeoning attraction gets thwarted for half a season. Barbie also uses the dome crisis to reinvent himself as the hero he once thought he could be, probably while he was in the army which naturally gives him the expertise to be a leader and stand up to corrupt ol’ Big Jim.
If Under the Dome takes this story in a completely different path, wonderful. But let’s not lose perspective. And even if such a hackneyed scenario is setting up a less predictable story, the innovation that generated that story should have eradicated the hackneyed scenario. So no free passes there.
Officer Linda’s fellow cops join her at the edge of town as she holds Duke’s body after the dome exploded his pacemaker. One is sensible and loyal, the other showing signs of panic and defiance, which will clearly blow up at some point with predictably tragic results. In a wittier show, he would accidentally kill himself during a freak-out and the town would learn the danger of freaking out while we enjoy some black humour. But in this one, you know he’s going to pop someone else. Someone nice.
Jeff Fahey looks to be properly dead too, suggesting he’s just cashing a few bucks as Linda’s dead father-figure, which she ensures we know by abruptly telling Big Jim that she loved Duke and he was like a father to her. If the dome somehow resurrects Fahey and not as a zombie, this show will suddenly become weird and unpredictable, so let’s hope some Reanimated Duke is on the menu for the next episode.
Later, Linda and Big Jim talk over Duke’s body at a makeshift morgue, which seems to be the local reverend’s house. A reverend who’s a coroner on the side, who also turns out to be amoral and part of Jim’s propane conspiracy, is surprisingly offbeat. Later events reveal how incompetent and lame he is though, so his burgeoning appeal dwindles fast. He is apparently using his and Jim’s ‘stuff’ though, suggesting they’ve stockpiled something more ingestible than just propane.
With Duke dead, Jim and Reverend Coggins have to ‘clean up their mess’ (more helpful signposting dialogue that Dean Norris must be cringing at). Coggins doles out some as-you-know exposition by clarifying that although Duke was involved in their mysterious scheme to save Chester’s Mill, he and Jim had ‘other priorities’. OK, I’ll bite that the sinister potential of a ton of propane and some drugs isn’t immediately obvious, so this might have some mileage.
Jim then pulls Duke’s will at the town hall and tells Linda that he left everything to her, so we again get to watch impassively as Linda weeps about Duke’s role in her life. With that unearned emotion out of the way, Jim sends Coggins to Duke’s house to clean out any evidence. He finds a propane bill taped to the back of a picture frame, and sets it on fire. His gleeful ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways’ sapping all menace and value from the character, Coggins then throws the flaming paper into the waste bin and then kicks it towards the curtain as he leaves. Coggins has already been established as something of a weak fool, of course, but the episode’s major setpiece being caused by a character’s staggering incompetence is a woeful narrative choice. Events should be unfolding as a result of the pressure and influences of the dome, not because of a remarkable lack of self-preservational instinct.
Duke’s house catches fire and Coggins is trapped inside. With all the firefighters having been called out of town before the dome came down, the townspeople don’t have the proper resources to fight the fire. They all band together with garden hoses and a line of buckets, of course, and Linda acts on her sole characteristic as Virtuous Cop by rescuing Coggins, unaware that he’s destroyed her father figure’s home and therefore her inheritance. Big Jim comes to the rescue, demolishing the house with a JCB so the fire can be contained.
In the glow of bucket-induced victory, the town listens to Jim’s reassuring speech, only it doesn’t work on Panicky Cop. Although his concern makes more sense than the rest of the town’s placid acceptance of an invisible dome imprisoning them, he does go off the deep end by firing his gun into the barrier. The bullets ricochet and kill Nice Cop whose handful of throwaway lines ensured he made no impression. Barbie, of course, subdues Panicky Cop and the town hopefully starts to accept that they are in a bad, bad situation.
Glimmers of worth include Joe, the only character allowed to show much interest in the dome itself, using his intelligence to map it. He discovers that some water can permeate the barrier, which explains why they won’t eventually suffocate. Joe’s a typical preternaturally smart and mature teenager character, complete with a sardonic offsider who quips about never getting to kiss Mila Kunis, but he’s smart and engaged and Colin Ford plays him as modest and thoughtful, so we can stand down from Wesley Crusher Alert. We also learn that during his seizure in the last episode, he referred to ‘pink stars’, which is appealingly baffling.
One welcome inclusion is interracial gay couple Alice and Carolyn (Samantha Mathis and Aisha Hinds), who were passing through Chester’s Mill with their teenage daughter, Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz) when the dome trapped them there. Nothing has been made of their sexuality or family situation yet, which is refreshing. For a show like this to engineer no conflict about their lifestyle and race and giving them a purpose completely separate from their sexual orientation would be rare and welcome. Please follow through on this, Under the Dome. A progressive portrayal in the wake of the DOMA decision would be fitting.
Not so welcome is the Junior-Angie storyline. After Angie tries to escape, Junior chains her to the bed in the fallout shelter. He then follows Barbie to the cabin where he killed Julia’s Husband to confront him about his non-existent affair with Angie. Being a delusional moron, Junior punches the bigger Barbie and gets soundly beaten in response. I enjoy thinking of Barbie’s instant weariness about Junior as Mike Vogel’s meta commentary about this tiresome storyline, which needs to be resolved and promptly ignored as soon as possible.
I haven’t read the Stephen King novel, so some of these elements and their flat, clichéd nature may be his fault rather than the showrunners. Nonetheless, I can’t believe I’m watching a show developed by Brian K. Vaughan. Network television seems to have worn away all of his edge and vitality. Under the Dome‘s scripts are generic templates that in no way resemble work like Y: The Last Man or Saga. Everything that’s distinctive, creative, and amusing about those comics is nowhere to be found in this show, and I have to believe that this is business for Vaughan rather than his best work. He’s working for the most conservative and traditional of the American networks, after all, and some compromise was undoubtedly necessary. Why this much though?
But plenty of shows have had inauspicious beginnings and transformed into vital and engaging ones. Maybe Under the Dome will be one of them. But when there’s no sense that it’s even aware of its own potential, how can it possibly realise it?