As far as pilots go, Under the Dome’s was a solid success. The inaugural episode drew a very impressive 13 million viewers, but more importantly it accomplished that which it set out to do – it planted narrative seeds and established sympathetic characters in an ominous and foreboding environment. Although I can imagine less sophisticated audiences complaining about the relative inaction – only a few vehicle collisions, a couple dead bodies, and one kidnapping (plus half a cow) – the seemingly gradual plot development is actually a great testament to the consistent pacing and deliberate narrative of the pilot which yields much more compelling results than what a rushed, more obviously action-laden premiere would. Michael Bay-splosions are meaningless without actual characters to anchor the pathos and Under the Dome has smartly balanced the two in its pilot.
I loved how the opening shot of a bird breaking through its own dome led to the contrasting shot of the mysterious, ex-military turned hit-man/loan-shark Barbie burying a dead man’s body. A little thematic foreshadowing of the conflict between nature and civilization, perhaps? Anyway, Barbie is clearly our protagonist as he’s the charismatic stranger in a small town that just got a bit smaller who not only serves as the audience surrogate, but got the most screen time and interacted with the most characters, namely teenaged siblings Joe and Angie McAlister and the local newspaper editor Julia Shumway. Considering how inherently campy the “Ace Reporter” character can easily be portrayed, I enjoyed Julia’s mix of skeptical curiosity seen with Mrs. Grenell’s tip about the excessive propane deliveries, and the vulnerable paranoia she exhibited when admitting to Barbie that it looks suspicious she can’t get a hold of her missing husband. Plus I didn’t see it coming when the audience was informed of whose body Barbie was burying.
There were really only two other stand-out characters from the pilot, not that the others introduced don’t have potential – they were all written and performed well – but there’s only so much a 42 minute episode can do, and I’m relieved it didn’t try to cram too much into the premiere. There’s the other Lost alumni (in addition to writer Brian K. Vaughan), Jeff Fahey, who plays the town’s chief of police, Sheriff Duke Perkins, who – exploded pacemaker or not – will be butting heads with Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, who plays a town councilman and car dealership owner, “Big Jim” Rennie, whose blatant disregard for radio stations’ on-air sanctity and Denny’s restaurants alike, is clearly the eager would-be fascist, definite antagonist – at least for the first season. Though these two characters’ exchange half way through the episode wasn’t exactly subtle (“It’s easier to reach a consensus when there’s only one voice to listen to, right?”), it’s indicative of the episode on the whole in that it carries a confident assurance of what the show wants to do and how it will do it – with an effective whimper instead of a flashy bang.
Existing in a post-Lost television landscape is an exciting prospect. While some lesser series have tried and failed to replicate the ABC sensation’s distinctive intrigue, smarter shows – and audiences – are better for it. They’re more refined. The bar has been raised considerably throughout television in recent years and Under the Dome certainly looks like it has the legs to avoid the pitfalls of shows like The Event or The River and actually carry its viewers into that rarely trekked territory known as exciting story-telling. It’s hard to gauge this pilot accurately without selling it short or reading too much into what it does offer, but that’s a very good sign.
A mystery series should be difficult to peg down lest we invite boredom into our culture yet again. I’m quite relieved Angie wasn’t rescued from her sincerely psychotic boyfriend, Junior, Jim’s son, and his dad’s old fallout shelter. I look forward to learning why Barbie had to kill Julia’s husband, Peter, and why Duke looked the other way while Jim has been stockpiling propane. The seizures experienced by Joe and the daughter of those just passing through with their matching ramblings about falling stars is just the right blend of weird and concrete to pique my interest without making me think this is just some weak red herring or cheap ploy. I believe that while at a quick glance Under the Dome’s pilot may resemble less capable mystery series, upon only a slightly closer inspection it holds up to scrutiny and offers much in the way of potential for compelling characters and a mythology based on that which we can relate to – not outrageous, unqualified ridiculousness for its own sake, but the all too familiar sensations that pervade our darker moments of insecurity and desperation.
By the way, although I’m unfamiliar with the source material, I know enough about the various properties of Stephen King to know that fans of the author and his works should be on the look-out for references to his other stories and worlds – if you’re familiar with The Dark Tower series then you know they are all linked together. Anyway, while it should go without saying that we’d all appreciate a spoiler-free zone here, feel free in the comments to mention any King references you spot. Anyone notice the name of the diner in which Jim’s reading his Churchill book at the beginning?