Under the Dome Recap: Outbreak


I’m running a bit behind with these recaps. This entry covers last week’s episode, and I’ll endeavour to get to this week’s as soon as I can face watching it.

If you had any doubt of how saccharine, prosaic, and flat-out lame Under the Dome is, it should be eliminated with this line of dialogue:

“Duke once told me that the most valuable weapon a police officer has is a good heart.”

Or something like that. I can’t bear wading through the episode again to check.

Any hope that Under the Dome might develop some wit and verve is rapidly fading. I may only think any hope remains because I’ve committed to doing these recaps and need to cling to any shred of optimism I can muster. What made me hopeful this week was a genuinely creepy moment when Joe and Norrie film one of their seizures, which they discover they can induce when they touch. In the video, Joe sits up, still writhing, looks at the camera, and holds a finger to his lips, whispering ‘shhhh’. It suggests a malevolent agency behind the seizures, and by default, the dome, that’s a tad unsettling. More of this please, Brian K. Vaughan!

This is a glimpse of the show Under the Dome might have been if it had stayed at Showtime, where it was originally developed. With their emphasis on quality, gritty adult drama, there’s no way they would have aired a show as toothless and generic as this one. Between CBS and the fact that ER veteran Neal Baer is the day-to-day showrunner rather than series developer Brian K. Vaughan, I can’t help thinking that Vaughan’s influence on the show has reduced dramatically. Baer has no history with genre television, and likewise Under the Dome has little interest in even resembling a Stephen King story. Vaughan has that experience and wrote far more sophisticated and entertaining scripts for Lost, not to mention his own comics, so it’s hard to believe he’s signing off on this show. I’m looking forward to the candid interview he gives some day to explain what the hell happened with this show.

Anyway, on to some recappin’. This week, we have the token outbreak storyline, but the impact is so minimal the story feels even more obligatory. Meningitis is on the loose, and the infected, including Sheriff Linda and Phil the Cool DJ, converge on the local clinic. With a doctor shortage, Norrie’s psychiatrist mum Alice (Samantha Mathis) takes charge, establishes a quarantine, and sends Barbie and Big Jim to the pharmacy for antibiotics. Mathis has an appealing steel and reserve here that I don’t normally associate with her. Like Dean Norris, she’s clearly capable of elevating this show if she were only allowed to.

Barbie and Big Jim find the pharmacy ransacked, leading to a perfect example of how Under the Dome takes up valuable time with thuddingly obvious dialogue. After we and they see the prescription shelves utterly empty, Barbie asks who Jim thinks did this. Jim replies, “whoever it was, it looks like they took everything”. Hasn’t the golden age of television managed to drip down enough smarts to CBS that we don’t need characters to narrate what we can plainly see on screen? I don’t watch other CBS shows like CSI and the NCIS units, so maybe this is de rigeur on America’s most-watched network. The banality is wall-to-wall, with plenty of “you sure you’re going to be okay” and “everything’s going to be fine, I promise” (said to a fellow adult). The writers are wasting their own time as well as ours. This cannot be fun to script.

Noting that a large vehicle like a hearse would be needed to move all the drugs, Jim and Barbie visit the town’s inexplicable coroner priest. In the first scene of the episode, where the townspeople protest the military’s departure, Reverend Coggins starts preaching that the dome is God’s judgement, etc, you know the rest. Why he’s gone from a corrupt, drug-taking, seemingly agnostic religious man to an apocalyptic preacher is not credibly explained. His newfound faith has also led him to steal the pharmacy’s prescription drugs and burn them, so God’s pestilential wrath can be enacted without impediment. Barbie and Jim stop him before he can destroy too much, groaning at the gormless priest and subplot, and take the antibiotics back to the clinic.

So Alice inoculates everyone under quarantine, which for some reason means the town is free of meningitis, even though they have no way of knowing if other victims are still in their houses. But they’d probably be dead by now, I guess, so whatevs, we’re seemingly led to conclude.

Well, not everyone survives. Reliable character actor Celia Weston gets wheeled in to play Linda’s old school teacher, cast no doubt to induce some empathy with only a few lines of dialogue before she refuses one of the last antibiotic doses so Linda can have it. Linda wistfully says to Junior later that her teacher saved her life, which is exactly what Julia says to Barbie later in the episode. This trope of banging on about characters saving each other’s lives is such a hollow attempt to generate meaning without effort that it’s particularly grating to see it wheeled out several times an episode.

The Julia and Barbie story gives us some narrative momentum at last. After speaking to Phil about his out-of-nowhere connection to Barbie and then to Junior about their fight at the cabin, Julia joins the dots that she should check the cabin for clues to her husband’s whereabouts. As lead characters in these shows tend to do, she tries to convince Junior that a quarantine shouldn’t apply to her, even though she’s sick, because she needs to go do some detective work that may not even lead to any of that precious live-saving. She manages to slip out using her husband’s pass, and learns in the cabin that her husband had drained their accounts. Barbie, who spends most of this show moving between locations chasing people, follows her to the cabin and brings her back when she starts to hallucinate.

Now with a strong indication that they’re connected, Julia confronts Barbie and learns that he was collecting on her husband’s gambling debts. We’d figured this out, of course, and just as the show comes close to yielding some genuine emotion and deep-seated conflict, it cops out when Barbie can’t bring himself to tell Julia that her husband’s dead. Timidity is the order of the day. In the Showtime version, he’d have told her and their relationship would be the first of many to sour and lead to the kind of uncivilised but socially illuminating conflict we actually watch disaster shows like this for. But no, Under the Dome is a soap opera.

Plot momentum also kicks in when Big Jim finally hears noises from his fallout shelter, finding Angie and a shelter half-full of water from a burst pipe. This comes just after Linda deputises Junior at Jim’s suggestion for keeping the quarantined townspeople in check with a rifle and some sentimental guff about believing in them and Chester’s Mill.

So we finally reach a turning point that might yield some conflict we can sink our teeth into. Big Jim probably can’t face the town knowing what a psycho his kid is, so he’ll leave him in his position of power rather than undermine his own. Or perhaps he’ll make it known and strip Junior of his new duties, rendering that entire plot development moot within minutes. Foolish and counterproductive, you say? You haven’t been watching Under the Dome.

And beneath all of this, we continue to glimpse the show that could have been. As the townspeople protest and write messages on the dome wall begging the military to stay, the hopelessness of their situation and the ripple effect of the dome generated a momentary rawness and texture. Touches like graffiti on the dome wall suggest a more detailed consideration of how this bizarre scenario might actually play out.

Instead, we get reheated soap stories about loan sharks and crazy ex-boyfriends. Just as the military can’t see the messages being written for them, Under the Dome seems to wilfully ignore its fundamental conceit. Apart from the seemingly supernatural seizures, this is basically a quarantine show, where some people are infected and others just have to deal with being confined and so continue to deal with the dramas they were already facing. The dome and its unique impacts seem as invisible to the writers as the dome wall is to Chester’s Mill.

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