Like many of you, I had high hopes for CBS's Under the Dome. I haven't read the book, but loved the concept, the cast, and the idea of a Brian K. Vaughn-led high-concept drama. After the pilot, my hopes were even higher. That first episode was full of strong moments; it focused both on plot and character, and it suggested that Vaughn and Neal Baer had a plan for telling this story. Unfortunately, now that we're five episodes in, my interest in Under the Dome has waned as about as dramatically as it possibly could. Tim's reviews haven't been especially kind in the post-pilot weeks, but the show hasn't given us much to be excited about.
But I do think there's a chance (even if it's one that's getting smaller every week) that Under the Dome could pull itself out of this funk, and that's because the pilot, and even some individual moments within the episodes that followed, hinted that the writers' hearts are in the right place (terrible dialogue notwithstanding). And that right place is with a focus on the people at the center of this mysterious event. Under the Dome has been one of the first of the post-Lost, high-concept "mystery" shows to actually pay attention to what made Lost successful; if it concentrates on that notion, there might still be hope.
Learning from Lost
Before you chain me up in a fallout shelter because I'm including Lost and Under the Dome in the same sentence, let me explain. Whereas shows like FlashForward and The Event and The Nine relied so heavily on the ENIGMAS at the core of their concepts, as if the island or the numbers or the hatches were what made Lost so great in the beginning, Under the Dome went to nice—if not great—lengths to establish its characters in the first episode. Even in its pre-dome moments, the pilot economically keyed us in to who the characters were on a basic level. Under the Dome's pilot was nowhere near as good as Lost's, but I appreciated that the former wasn't immediately layering on the mystery and the empty questions at the cost of the people in the world. Like Lost, Under the Dome gave us a fairly simple premise, despite the big mystery at the front of it; neither show's debut was unnecessarily convoluted simply to mislead the audience, and both featured a nice mix of plot and character intrigue.
Of course, now that we've been under the Dome for five episodes, it's clearer than ever that Under the Dome isn't Lost. There's not one part of it that's as good or as compelling what Lost had to offer. The series has quickly become ridiculous, plodding, and seemingly disinterested in its own premise, and there's very little logic, reason, or urgency behind the actions people take. It wasn't until Episode 4 that the people of Chester's Mill seemed particularly worried about being trapped in a giant fishbowl with little information as to how or why, and even though people reacted to drastic military action in this week's episode, there still wasn't a whole lot of inquiry. Their generally lackadaisical attitude trickles down to little moments as well; a few weeks ago, Junior and Julia stood in those tunnels talking about nothing, just chillin' while their final match went out. Sometimes, it feels like characters are still too wrapped up in their own pre-Dome drama, as if its arrival hadn't fundamentally altered their lives. I was willing to write some of this off as typical post-pilot growing pains, but four episodes' worth of silly storytelling is worrisome.
How Under the Dome Can Improve
But if you'll allow me to keep the Lost comparison going, I'll take the opportunity to wonder aloud whether Under the Dome's creative team (including former Lost staff writer Vaughn) took the values of Lost too far. They clearly wanted to focus on the characters right from the jump, and now they've narrowed in on them too much—and seemingly forgotten that this is a show about A HUGE DOME THAT RANDOMLY APPEARS OVER AN ENTIRE TOWN. Thus, just five episodes in, there's little to no mystery to investigate, and that's because the characters don't seem to care about it. With Lost, enough things happened early on to convince the people on the island that something weird was afoot; the show made the audience care about curiosities like the Others and the hatches because Jack, Kate, and company cared about them, too (or, rather, they cared about how those things might get them off the island or protect them). But does anyone on Under the Dome actually seem to give a damn about what the dome does or why it's there? Joe cared for like three scenes, then he found a girl to flirt with (totally understandable, but...). Barbie doesn't really care, Julia doesn't really care, Big Jim doesn't care. Some of the supporting characters like Dodee have stumbled into some interest, but they don't get enough screen time within individual episodes for it to make much of impact.
Nevertheless, I think there's still hope. In my mind, it's easier to inject mystery back into a high-concept mystery show than it is to rely too much on the mystery for five episodes and then have to work to get the audience invested in the characters. I'm not sure that Under the Dome has succeeded in making us care about any of these people quite yet (I do kind of care about Joe), but I admire it for trying to do so when so many other shows like it just immediately start with the vague questions and eye-rolling mentions of conspiracies. Yes, in ignoring the appeal of its premise to get down to very basic plots, the show has sucked most of the air out of what made the pilot interesting (kind of like Revolution). But if Under the Dome can find a way to make its characters care about the presence of the dome beyond their more necessary-but-boring functional concerns (medicine, power, etc.), the mystery and intrigue will slowly return, and the show could get back on track faster than we might expect. It's never, ever, ever going to be Lost, but Under the Dome isn't lost quite yet.
How would YOU fix Under the Dome? Do you think it's even possible?
AIRED ON 9/16/2013
Season 1 : Episode 13