Under the Dome Series Premiere Review: Dome, Sweet Dome

Under the Dome S01E01: "Pilot"

Note: I haven't read the book, so there will be no book comparisons within.

As the major broadcast networks realize that their television model is quickly becoming dust thanks to the rise of whippersnapper cable, there are two areas that they know need immediate work: the length of a typical 22-episode season and the annual summer ratings drought. CBS is addressing both of these issues with its new summer series Under the Dome, a 13-episode dramatic adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name that the network hopes will unslump its summer and help it nab some of that cool cable crowd. Considering the dearth of other interesting network summer fare, one would think the series wouldn't even have to be that good to be deemed a successful model for the future. But we won't get to find that out, because Under the Dome is just good enough to be called good, and it may be even better that.

In case you didn't figure out the complex plot from the pilot, a giant friggin' impenetrable force-dome goes kerplunk over the small town of Chester's Mill, trapping its citizens inside like some red velvet cupcakes on display at a pastry shop. If you're asking yourself, "Like, what is the dome and where did it come from, dude!?" Congrats! You are asking the right question.

But we've posed similar queries before. "What is the event, bro?" "What the f*** are these flashforwards, man?" "Why are old prisoners from 1950s Alcatraz killing people today, Jorge Garcia?" But something tells me that "What's the dome?!" will give us a better answer, and there are two reasons for that. First, and most importantly, a tighter 13-episode season will mean less filler and fewer distractions from the question at hand. A lot of times, mystery-based sci-fi series will know their mystery and not much else, resulting in a scrambled mess of clues, flimsy characters, and poor choices. Second, Stephen King. I mean, the guy is supposedly pretty good at this storytelling thing, right?

However, CBS is pondering stretching out Under the Dome out for multiple seasons, which means it may ultimately face the same troubles as the Big Question Series that came before it. When do you answer the question? Are the side stories good enough to keep the series going? Do we care about anything other than the dome? Lately, TV networks have been showing a greater interest in "limited-run events," or miniseries, as regular folks call 'em, and Under the Dome probably should probably be one of them. Show us a dome and the ensuing freakout, tell us some stories, tell us where the dome came from, thank you, goodnight. Of course, the reality of the situation is that we won't know if Under the Dome will be able to sustain a lengthy run until we've seen a few episodes. But history has taught us to be weary. Very weary.

Okay, enough about the boring prognosticating on what the show could or should be, let's live in the here and now, talk about what happened, and get on with this review business. I'm not going to call Under the Dome excellent or anything, but I sure enjoyed watching the premiere for what it was. I'm a sucker for domes, I guess, and all that comes with them. Planes crashing into an invisible dome, birds snapping their hollow-bone necks by slamming into an invisible dome, and a poor cow getting bisected by an invisible dome were all very cool. And from the pilot, it appears the show knows exactly what it wants to be: a forward-moving, no-nonsense drama about a town imprisoned by a magical barrier. So far, so good.

Producers Brian K. Vaughn (Lost) and Neal Baer (ER) are confident that viewers will get sucked into the lives of the people under the dome just as much as they'll be sucked into the mystery of the dome itself. (They also plan to approach Under the Dome the same way The Walking Dead handled its comic-book source, by veering off the path with new mysteries that weren't in the book while still staying somewhat close to the source material.) And they certainly didn't waste any time with characters in the pilot. Even though it checked in with plenty of people, every member of the ensemble cast was well-served in the first hour, and the pilot did a good job of clearly laying them out as King-character archetypes. Barbie (Mike Vogel) is the mysterious outsider. Julia (Rachelle Lafevre) is the inquisitive journalist. Big Jim (Dean Norris) is the shady politician and part-time car salesman. Duke (Jeff Fahey) is the well-meaning police chief, and so on. The episode didn't give us much to discuss about them for now, but they all have dark secrets, and that's what is going to make this show work (if it does).

However, I'm not expecting these people to be defined by much more than their roles in the town and the secrets they hide. But that should be fine for Under the Dome, which shouldn't strive to be much more than competent, distraction television for the summer months. Anything beyond that is a bonus. (Under the Dome was originally set up at Showtime, which passed it on to parent network CBS probably because it wasn't up to their standards.)

One thing that surprised me about the pilot was how quickly it rushed into non-dome-related stories in the second half. Non-dome-related stories in a show about a dome? What? Angie (Britt Robertson) got kidnapped by Junior (newcomer Alexander Koch) and shoved into a fallout shelter? Excuse me, but that has nothing to do with the dome. Big Jim and Duke bickered over the mass shipments of propane? Ummm, there's a big dome over your town, the morality of gas hoarding can wait! Barbie murdered Julia's husband? Okay, that's pretty interesting, especially since those two are totally going to do it. But still, DOME DOME DOME. Maybe it's just me, but I think the power of the dome's initial impact could have been extended a bit longer and the essentials of the horrific situation fleshed out in more detail while Junior the Sicko's psychopathic obsession with Angie was put off for another day.

And that's my biggest complaint about the pilot: The tone was inconsistent between the first and second halves. So I'm about to spend more time talking about it than I should. After sufficiently establishing itself as a summer escape in the first half of its premiere, Under the Dome's second-half stories made the episode feel like a television show slowly building out its television-ness, rather than an immersive, cataclysmic event. Yes, of course it's a TV show and it has to follow a TV structure, but the more the audience is aware that they're watching a TV show, the worse of a job that TV show is doing at keeping viewers in its sci-fi concept. It's awfully difficult to pull off, but the first half of Under the Dome's pilot did it well.

It was in the second half of the episode that some Chester's Mill residents suddenly got comfortable with their new roof while we, the audience, were still in awe. Even today's stupidest high schoolers wouldn't hold a red-cup party if their town had just been transformed into a snowglobe, right? Am I overestimating the intelligence of high schoolers again? Junior's menacing spying and jealous rage over Angie talking to Barbie felt off. I don't care how mentally unstable Junior is, there's a huge dome overhead! Big Jim, who just a few scenes earlier was breaking into a radio station with an urgent dome-related emergency broadcast, put that panic aside to talk about gas with Duke. Shady gas dealings are the least of your concerns, guys. And Julia addressed her husband's infidelity and showed off some pictures to Barbie instead of running around with her arms over her head screaming, "There's a dome over our heads! We're all going to die!" It would be one thing if these people were on the other side of the country, but they're right in the epicenter of what show scientists called "an unparalleled event in human history." I guess what I'm saying is, it felt a little too soon to care about the kidnapping of a girl I barely know when I'd much rather be figuring out whether it was aliens who dropped the dome over the town.

The last third of the pilot aimed to build the future of the series by opening up a few boxes of mystery, but in doing so, it created a disconnect between "Holy sh*t there's a dome over our heads!" and hitting obvious television plot points. The later scenes were either exclusively about dome panic or about building character relationships, when they should have been about both. One thing we television viewers like to do is put ourselves in the shoes of the characters on the screen, and if we behaved like some of these characters we'd all be domed. I mean dOOmed!

Aside from that minor quibble which I expanded into about four paragraphs (sorry) and which will probably be a thing of the past once Episode 2 airs, I think we're looking at a pretty decent series here. Under the Dome appears to have a really solid foundation, not to mention a sense of direction—a rarity in these Big Question Series. I may think the side stories in the pilot were ill-timed, but that doesn't mean they aren't interesting and won't pay big dividends once our dome infatuation wears off and we realize that the big questions won't be answered anytime soon. This is what Stephen King does best, keeping his audience just eager enough to start the next chapter, no questions asked.



– Why didn't we see clearly outlined organs in the bisected cow? I wanted to see cow organs! The cow innards looked like a bunch of bloody ground beef. Does the Dome cauterize what it touches? I didn't notice any heat damage elsewhere, but it does seem to give off some type of energy, as evidenced by the static-like shock to the touch.

– Was the opening with the bird and the hatching egg a poor attempt at artistic metaphor or was it actually something important?

– Okay, so what's up with these epileptic teens? Did anyone catch what they were saying exactly? With all the foam gurgling out of their traps, all I caught was, "The stars are falling in lines..."

– Poor Jeff Fahey! I had figured his Duke character would at least make it out of the pilot, but I'm guessing that he really needed the malfunctioning pacemaker that jumped out of his chest in the final moments of the episode. That's good news for Big Jim, though, as whatever gaseous secret he's hiding will stay shrouded, now that Duke is dead. My guess: Big Jim got Homeland's Abu Nazir to hack into Duke's wifi-enabled pacemaker and send it on the fritz.

– The original cut of the pilot ended with President Obama talking about domes—a nice touch. But producers decided to pull the POTUS's chit-chat before the official broadcast because the real-life audio came from a speech about Hurricane Sandy, and they didn't want to use it in this fictional sense.

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