CBS, perhaps in an attempt to combat the lame, reality and re-run heavy summer fare on the basic networks, has a new offering premiering this week. Titled UNDER THE DOME, this thirteen episode series, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, follows the residents of Chester’s Mill Maine when a transparent, sound-proof, impenetrable dome suddenly crashes down over their town.
UNDER THE DOME feels a lot like other summer programs in the past that haven’t lasted, such as the one where a handful of people were trapped in a town and were watched on cameras, or other Stephen King TV dramatizations, or even a little bit like cult-favorite Jericho. It has the sort-of post-apocalyptic, yet still small-scale and personal, feeling of a drama about people on the edge.
The cast, whom we are mostly introduced to in the first eight minutes, before the dome appears, are a broad spectrum of individuals, almost as if there was a checklist that had to be satisfied when putting together the ensemble. None of them are particularly original characters, even though there are some very good actors playing them, as they are without exception archetypes that have been seen on a variety of other shows.
Among those featured are: Barbie (Mike Vogel, Bates Motel, Pan Am), an ex-Army officer who comes to town and kills someone, then is trapped before he can escape; Big Jim (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad), the crooked councilman who wants to use the disaster to manipulate the town into his own personal kingdom; Angie (Britt Robertson, Life Unexpected), a waitress who dates a too-clingy boy; Junior (Alexander Koch), Big Jim’s mentally unbalanced son who has designs on Angie; Julia (Rachelle Lefevre, What About Brian), a journalist with a missing husband; Dodee (Jolene Purdy, Gigantic), a mouthy radio engineer; Duke (Jeff Fahey, Lost), the ineffective patsy cop; and Linda (Natalia Martinez, Detroit 1-8-7), a deputy whose fireman boyfriend is outside the dome.
Believe it or not, that is not a complete roster of the characters featured in the “Pilot.” UNDER THE DOME presents a sprawling cast with few connections between one another thus far, but surely more will be revealed as things unfold, as we’ve been taught it common for small towns. Unlike a series like Lost, these people aren’t banding together, but instead following their own motivations and activities.
As such, there isn’t a clear, cohesive story in episode one. Everyone has their own implications of the occurrence to deal with, and as no one even really knows what’s going on yet, there has been no concentrated effort to solve the mystery or find a way out of the disaster. A couple people have sort of started down that road, but have barely begun to investigate.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some intriguing set-ups. A couple of theories are put forth, at least one character reveals to viewers that he actually does know what is happening, one on the roster above is dead by the end of the first hour, there are some clues that indicate a larger conspiracy, strange seizures appear other-worldly, and various family connections pop when one is not expecting.
There are also a few missteps in UNDER THE DOME. I feel like the dome actually coming down is unnecessarily brutal. A cow is split in half and slides down the wall, leaving a bloody streak. A plane smashes into the dome, and among the debris raining down is a severed limb. A truck rams the barrier and becomes almost as flat as a pancake. None of these are executed in impressive fashion, given the low special effects budget and broadcast network restrictions, so they aren’t particularly amazing. Instead, they come off as cheap gags designed to entice the viewer, but failing to do so because of their cheesy execution. It would be better if we got more dialogue scenes and less of these “shockers.”
If the focus stays on the characters, rather than gross gimmicks, UNDER THE DOME should provide satisfying summer entertainment, probably the best of the Big Four networks’ programming. There is some real talent present that can be better utilized than we’ve seen so far. But it’s not regular season-quality, and it does feel like an amateur effort compared to other projects. King may be able to write fantastic novels, but they seldom translate into groundbreaking shows or movies, and this one is not on the level of The Shining or the few other notable exceptions to that rule.
UNDER THE DOME premieres Monday, June 24th at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.