Based on the (heavy) bestseller by Stephen King, CBS’s summer series ‘Under the Dome’ is being presented as a “special event” series of 13 episodes. However, the network has also made it clear that if the show is successful, it will continue as an ongoing series. With over 13 million viewers, Monday’s ratings were CBS’s highest for a summer show since 1992, so it looks like there’s a good chance life ‘Under the Dome’ may continue for a while. But is the series any good? Let’s take a look…
The ‘Pilot’ episode opens with a drifter we’ll later learn is called “Barbie” (Mike Vogel from ‘Bates Motel‘) burying a body in the woods of Chester’s Mill, Maine. As he races out of town in his Dodge Charger, he spots local law enforcement and slows down to avoid suspicion. He’s so distracted by the police that he misses some cows out in the road and crashes through a fence, flattening a tire. Minutes later, one of those cows is cut perfectly in half when an invisible dome slams into the ground, trapping the entire town.
Reports start coming in to the Sheriff (Jeff Fahey) and his deputy Linda (Natalie Martinez) about the strange shield that surrounds the town. It gives off some kind of mild electric shock when touched by human hands, and no sound can reach the other side. Police, fire departments and eventually the military begin to gather outside the dome, but no one can figure a way in or out.
The majority of the pilot episode is spent introducing us to the cast of characters. In addition to those already mentioned, we have town selectman “Big Jim” Rennie (Dean Norris from ‘Breaking Bad’), who springs into action once the crisis begins. Like many in Chester’s Mill, he seems to be hiding some secrets… particularly about large shipments of propane that have been coming into town. The Sheriff knows what Rennie is up to, but he’ll never get the chance to tell anyone, as his pacemaker explodes when he gets too close to the dome’s barrier, killing him and leaving Rennie as the de facto head honcho of Chester’s Mill.
Rennie has a son, “Junior” (Alexander Koch), who’s even less stable than his old man. When his girlfriend Angie (Britt Robertson) decides to break up with him, Junior becomes abusive. Later, after he sees Angie talking to Barbie, he becomes even more violent and knocks her unconscious. By episode’s end, he has her chained up in his family’s bomb shelter.
Then there’s redheaded reporter Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre from the ‘Twilight’ movies), who spends the episode both investigating the dome incident as well as reports of all the propane being shipped into town. She runs into Barbie and the two strike up a friendship. It’s only at the end of the pilot that viewers discover that the body Barbie was burying in the woods was Julia’s missing husband (whom she suspects has run off with another woman).
I was a big fan of Stephen King’s book, but when I heard this series was going to air on CBS (instead of CBS-owned Showtime, as was originally the plan), I worried that it might be a bit too watered down for a network audience. King’s book had a pretty high body count and a nice dark sense of humor. Both those things seem to be missing (so far) from the TV version.
For example, in King’s book, Junior kills Angie early in the story. Not only that, but he kills another girl as well, then spends most of the book having sex with their corpses. A little too dark for CBS? No doubt, but I’m not sure keeping Angie alive to torture her for 13 episodes is the right path to take, either. Then there’s the character of Barbie, who was a loner but also ex-military in the novel and definitely a “good” guy. Here, he seems to either be responsible for or an accomplice in a murder. Julia Shumway didn’t have a husband in King’s story, so what direction Barbie’s character takes from here is anyone’s guess.
There are other odd changes as well, including a lesbian couple with a daughter that was not in the original, and the head-scratching change of turning a Christian radio station (novel version) into a standard radio station (TV version). Was CBS worried they might alienate some atheists?
‘Under the Dome’ is executive produced by ‘Lost’ vets Brian K. Vaughn and Jack Bender. The showrunner is Neal Baer (‘Law & Order: SVU’, ‘E.R.’), and the pilot was directed by Niels Arden Oplev (the original Swedish ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘). So, I still have high hopes that things will come together and really click in the weeks to follow. Still, for a pilot episode, I found ‘Under the Dome’ to be somewhat lackluster. The King novel was always more about the characters in the town than the dome around them, but will that kind of storytelling work on TV, or will viewers expect to learn answers about the dome as the series progresses? (For the record, the weakest part of King’s book was finding out what the dome actually is – so the writers for the series can’t possibly do worse.) It will be interesting to see if we have many years to spend under the dome, or if the show will quickly burn out. (Hint, hint!)