Under the Dome, CBS’ new supernatural mystery/suspense drama, has the best pedigree that network television can buy. Based on the 1,000+ page novel by Stephen King (unread by me), executive produced by King and Steven Spielberg, and adapted for television by well-regarded comics writer Brian K. Vaughan, it has all the potential of a new genre classic. And if slicing up a book from years ago into neat episode-sized chunks seems counterproductive to the organic demands of television, tell that to George R. R. Martin and HBO. There’s something very comforting about tuning in to a weekly serial while knowing its ending already exists in some form, and in an age where entertainment is as competitive as ever, that comfort a viewer will have of knowing they’ll be getting a complete story is a formidable marketing hook. Indeed, Under the Dome is heralded as a thirteen-episode “limited” series that has the possibility of extension, meaning that our investment is risk-free. While we may get more seasons, if we only get one, everything is in place for it to end satisfactorily.
But does it begin satisfactorily? Ah, there’s the question. It does, with some caveats, the primary one being that it moves very very fast. That’s an understandable quirk, as a typical genre pilot now is in the business of cramming in exposition, not letting it breathe. It’s nice to see a scripted drama that respects viewers’ intelligence and demands they keep up. Nevertheless, we only get a few tiny scenes of what “normal” life is like in the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine before an invisible wall springs from the ether, encircling the town in a creepy force field and stranding its inhabitants inside. This wall, so strong that it can total full-sized tractor trailers on contact, is, of course, part of the titular “dome,” an invisible barrier that separates the town from the rest of civilization (and yes, before you say it, I will: “Simpsons did it.”) The dome conceit will no doubt become an antagonizing backdrop for the heighted human dramas that will play out over Under the Dome’s lifespan. The notion of the isolated community becoming factionalized due to a disaster is a staple of King’s books, and for good reason: it works like gangbusters every time.
But we’re not there yet. As is befitting a pilot, Under the Dome’s first episode makes a few gestures towards foreshadowing events to come (pay close attention to when one character equates their environs to a fishbowl, and how goldfish can become cannibals). And to be sure, there are some shocking things that happen here. But hour #1 is mainly devoted to setting up characters, doing so with such rapidity that not all of them are even established before the dome is sealed. It’s an eclectic ensemble, typical of King’s rich gift for sketching cross-sections of small towns, and it will be exciting to see them square off against each other. But for now, we get some low-key revelations and ominous portents.
Our players include a good-hearted sheriff (Jeff Fahey) with a pacemaker, which means we fret for his safety when we learn that the dome messes with electromagnetic energy. His deputy, Linda (Natalie Martinez), has a firefighter husband on the other side of the dome. A slick, loud councilman, “Big Jim” Rennie (Dean Norris) seems like potential trouble, as he’s obsessed with status and just became big fish in a small pond. Big Jim’s son, Junior (Alexander Koch) is disturbingly clingy to his summer fling Angie (Britt Robertson), who herself has a brother, Colin (Joe McClatchey). There’s another sullen teenager, Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz), who is the daughter of two possibly lesbian parents. There’s also a nosy reporter named Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre) and a shifty loner, Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel, who appears to be the go-to actor this season for playing shifty small-town malcontents). Barbie? King’s talent for putting unusual finishing strokes on the names for his characters continues unabated.
The dome announces itself in a really spectacular (and spectacularly gruesome, for TV) sequence where it slams down with such force that it perfectly bisects a cow; a plane crash that ensues moments later feels like a relief in comparison. For a series that’s airing on cozy ol’ CBS, there’s some envelope-pushing material here, especially when it comes to showcasing unsettling behavior from our leads right away. Junior, a budding psychotic with suicidal thoughts, decides to kidnap Angie when her parents, as luck would have it, get trapped on the other side of the dome. Both Norrie and Colin suffer horrifying seizures when near the lip of the dome. Julia lets Dale stay at her house, unaware that when we first met the drifter, he was burying a body, and the body was Julia’s husband. Big Jim, clearly being set up to be a big bad, makes veiled threats against the good-hearted sheriff, who, at episode’s conclusion, suffers unspeakable horror when his pacemaker springs out of his chest. Say what you will about Under the Dome, but I’ve never seen that before on TV. Vaughan’s teleplay is economical and sharp.
This is an overall strong ensemble, although it’s predictably uneven. The best performance is by Dean Norris as the oily, ingratiating Big Jim. Most will recognize Norris as Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law from Breaking Bad. The weakest acting so far comes from Lefevre, whose every line reading feels still and unnatural; she hasn’t quite developed the skill yet to sell Vaughan’s adaptation of King’s mannered, cornpone dialogue. The wild card, Koch as Junior, so far seems victim of circumstance, as the plot demands he go psycho far too quickly. Other characters don’t quite get the chance to make their mark. I’d like to see much more of the deputy Linda, but give it time; I have a feeling she’s about to move up in the world.
We get no answers about where the dome comes from, who built it, or why, or what its true nature even is. When one character supposes maybe it’s a government operation, Dale shoots that theory down quickly: “I doubt it. Because it actually works.” Obviously, the dome’s main responsibility is as a hook for the town to turn inward and possibly collapse, but if they do pursue the thread of what its true function is, that might spin the series into an intriguing, unforeseen direction. The possibilities are suitably tantalizing.
The conclusion of Under the Dome’s pilot (right after the brutal pacemaker gag) feels suitably breathless: by now, we’ve just about established the characters and either started or hinted at the plots each will be involved in. it’s clear that King, Spielberg and Vaughan have in mind a sprawling epic, and I’m excited to see where it goes, while at the same time reflecting that, like all epics, the first chapter is a tiny bit of a chore. Like many masters of storytelling, King organizes his tales like a well-proportioned meal, which means that first you arrange the ingredients, then, gradually, you turn up the heat. The pilot of Under the Dome makes a solid case for appointment viewing, persuasively laying a promise of “Can you believe that happened?” TV. I’m in for the meal. Let’s get cooking.