As I mentioned last week, I’ve decided to use a test proposed by the ever brilliant and insightful Charlie Jane Anders of io9.com as a format for my review of Under the Dome‘s first season finale, “Curtains,” to see if the show can improve after an especially weak first season (I’m betting the answer is a resounding “NO,” but let’s find out together).
First, a synopsis for those who don’t care about all this criticism junk (which, I mean, why are you even here then?):
- The butterfly in the mini-dome hatched. It painted the domes black. (Linda acted like a dick telling the Pink Star Seizure Gang the mini-dome is police property. Joe explained something THAT WE WERE ALREADY WATCHING HAPPEN.) Linda got electrocuted. It was sweet.
- Julia and Angie broke Barbie out of jail then he kicked two guys’ asses with his hands behind his back. Literally. Then they met up with the gang in the concrete catacombs to touch the mini-dome. They did. It turned into dirt and fell apart releasing the butterfly which fluttered around Barbie while inspirational orchestral music played thus “crowning” Barbie WHICH SURPRISES NO ONE, but Junior looks pretty butt-hurt about the whole thing.
- Jim’s also pretty butt-hurt about Chester’s Mill going all atheist on a deathbed after fifteen minutes of darkness and congregating in the church. If this town of thirty-odd extras isn’t rioting then it’s praying (in this case either is really just a form of panicking). Jim plays preacher-man.
- The egg rattles like a snake and then glows white until Julia picks it up which makes her the monarch. This is surprising since I can’t remember Julia doing anything except get shot, but surprising in a “huh” kind of way, like with Snapple-facts, not “WHOA” surprising, like with good stories.
- Jim, a powerful white man with a shaved head, drinks Scotch without offering any to DJ Phil, a hip black man, whom Jim calls “son,” and convinces to help him build a gallows to “show everyone exactly how serious we are about law and order.” DJ Phil does not look as nervous as he should, or bruised – remember when Barbie kicked him in the face?
- Junior incredulously asks if his dad hurt a woman as if Junior himself didn’t abduct and keep captive the girl he’s talking to. The irony appears lost on everyone.
- Ghost Alice shows up. She pretty much spells out the dome was sent by aliens to protect Chester’s Mill, but won’t say from what because that would be too easy. This show wants to be cryptic, but it hasn’t earned it. Twin Peaks was cryptic. Lost was cryptic. Under the Dome is inferior to both those shows, each of which are notorious for not delivering in the end, that’s how bad it is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
- Jim tells Junior he’s taken lives. Junior hugs him. Seems legit.
- The entire town (all 30 or so of its citizens) show up to watch Barbie hang. Everyone seems fine with this (including his girlfriend, Queen Julia), though it’s not really explained why, we just have to assume that due process and the contention surrounding capital punishment dissolves UNDER THE DOME.
- Just as Junior is about to hang Barbie Julia drops the egg in the lake which releases the pink stars which make the dome shine from the inside but look gray from the outside.
- Roll credits. No, seriously.
And the season ends on what you want to call a cliffhanger, except that would imply anyone could possibly care about what happens after such a nonsensical “conclusion,” which is something I just can’t begin to fathom. Nonetheless, I could sit here and bash away at this show for a few thousand words, but instead of subjecting either of us to that ordeal, let’s keep this above board and use Anders’ formula.
1. Does this show still have potential for greatness, in its characters or its mythos?
a. Is there any chemistry among the cast? (No)
Well, out of everyone left alive and active at this point there are six repeated combinations from the main cast to base this answer on: Barbie and Jim, Barbie and Julia, Jim and Linda, Jim and Junior, Junior and Angie, and Joe and Norrie. This may sound like a cop out, or a lazy response, but honest to whatever semblance of a god that allowed this show to be aired and renewed, I do not believe there is any kind of spark among any of these character combinations. Not one of the actors who’ve appeared on this show, including Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris, breathed any sort of life into their performances or the production within which they existed. It sounds harsh, I know, but with the possible exceptions of Jeff Fahey (the lovably scruffy Sherriff Duke Perkins) and Natalie Zea (the awesomely camp Maxine Seagrave), each of whom died pretty quickly, and maybe Mackenzie Lintz (Norrie the bully-buster), this has been the most wooden and uninspired collection of performances I’ve ever witnessed.
b. Is the show treading water? (Yes)
Like Maxine’s mother? HAHAHAHAhahahaha…ahem. Actually, as Anders points out, treading water, as Under the Dome absolutely has – it barely moved forward from its premise at all – isn’t the worst thing a show can do, in fact, “sometimes it seems like a show that’s just swimming in place might have an easier time than one that’s actively backstroking in the wrong direction.” The question is whether Under the Dome has been backstroking or not. If it weren’t for the lazily ambiguous conclusion of “Curtains” I’d say the series hasn’t necessarily drowned itself or fixed itself in a trajectory it can’t somehow correct, but that final scene could be revealed as anything the writers want for the second season premiere. To me this says more than enough about whether the show is worth investing your time into, but I suppose technically this also means there’s still room to “indicate some extra potential just bubbling under the surface.”
c. Is the show living up to its premise? (No)
This is tricky with Under the Dome seeing as how amorphous its premise actually is. Unlike an alien invasion show that does or doesn’t include aliens invading shit, or a show about dinosaurs that does or doesn’t include dinosaurs tearing shit up, this series has no obvious indicator of its premise because, frankly, it’s pretty ill-defined. This may sound hypocritical seeing as how I’ve often complained about how Julia’s voiceover AT THE BEGINNING OF EVEY SINGLE EPISODE beats the show’s premise into our heads, but her shpeal about Chester’s Mill being “cut off” and how “none of [its] secrets are safe,” is pretty vague.
But let’s move forward from those points. Did this first season explore the isolation of Chester’s Mill? Yes, it did. Several episodes focused on the community’s lack of resources and need to create new sustainable means by which to support themselves. Was this exploration done justice? Fuck, no. Whether it was the fire episode, or the meningitis episode, or the drought episode, or the pregnancy episode – every single threat created by the town’s isolation was tied up in a neat little bow in about thirty minutes to no one’s satisfaction. Without the ongoing consequences of diminishing resources – as explored in Battlestar Galactica for instance – the isolation bit doesn’t live up to its premise.
Did this first season expose its citizens’ secrets? Some, yes. We learned how Julia was disgraced from her big city reporter job. We learned the sheriff, the reverend, and the car salesman/councilman were involved in a criminal conspiracy to keep a made-up drug called “Rapture” out of the town. That’s about it. Barbie’s secret about killing Peter could count, but he wasn’t a town member and his secret is pretty outrageous, like the drug conspiracy. Whereas Julia’s secret is something reasonable, realistic, and relatable (we’ve all made mistakes we can’t take back and have felt shame), Peter’s death and the drug conspiracy are less small town secrets than convoluted plot devices. So, really then, no, there weren’t any exposed secrets (plural) from the citizens of Chester’s Mill. Broadchurch this is not.
d. Does the mythos have a core? (Hardly)
Only Junior’s mother and her god-awful paintings. Seriously, that’s it. There’s no other significant history which bears any weight that’s actually been developed on the show. What’s worse is Mrs. Rennie’s fragile mental health has no discernible relation to the dome’s presence or its effects (otherwise what might be considered the show’s themes, which I guess are…survival?). You could try to argue Barbie’s past in the military counts (we never learned what their plan for Barbie and the egg was, huh?), but that’s a character history with no apparent connections to the show’s central conceit. I sure can’t think of anything else, can you?
e. Was the pilot somewhat entertaining? (Yes)
The show’s pilot (written by the otherwise fantastic Brian K. Vaughan) earned rave reviews across the board, including from yours truly. Similar to the treading water question, Anders suggests “A show that fails to live up to a fun pilot is maybe in a better position than one that’s trying to build on a pilot that fell flat. If the pilot didn’t suck, you can always hope the creators go back and rewatch it over the break.” It’s yet to be seen if Vaughan will return to work on the second season. I love his work, but personally I don’t think the show’s worth trying to save so I hope he stays far away from season two. Stephen King, the author of the book this show is adapted from, will write the premiere.
2. Are there any glimmerings of signs that the show is groping its way towards fulfilling that potential, at all?
a. Have they shaken up the cast in a positive way? (No)
Well, they killed Dodee. They killed Ollie. Dodee was a gullible yet suspicious one-note tech-wiz and Ollie was a bigoted Jim-lite so I guess they were dead weight and it’s positive to have shed them. Then again, Maxine was also killed. Max’s appearance was laughably random and unbelievable, but damnit if she wasn’t the funnest character to watch (and I’m not referring to her physical attractiveness). Her whole vice den plot was too ridiculous to last, but I think her shenanigans are the only ones I’d want to watch (if I had to chose that is; naturally I’m never going to watch this show ever again). With no other new additions or internal improvements I can’t really say the cast has been “shaken up” in any way at all, positive or negative.
b. Did the recent batch of episodes feature some entertaining moments? (No)
In terms of interesting ideas, powerful emotional moments, striking visuals, or even just some awesome action sequences, the last plot arc of Jim framing Barbie for Julia’s shooting and the murders of Maxine, her mother, and her goon was pretty empty. I guess this is the most opinion based question so far, but despite whatever kernels of interesting ideas are buried in this show’s latest arc (alien contact, I guess?) none have actually been developed, not even a little beyond Ghost Alice’s one paltry appearance.
As far as emotional moments go, there was Jim and Junior’s hug and Julia’s grasping Barbie’s dog tags on the boat, but none of these characters evoke genuine pathos. Junior and Jim are both psychos and you know they’ll try to kill each other and subsequently make up about nine times or so next season, and Julia – first of all, I’m not really sure why she’s so into her husband’s killer or why she’s so willing to sacrifice him to uphold her new title of monarch, which is also completely out of left field.
The show’s action is pretty run of the mill so I won’t even go there. Its visuals admittedly can be kind of spooky and effective, but without being grounded in any kind of solid emotional or narrative resonance, they’re too glib to hold up anything on their own.
c. Did the season end with a bang or a WTF? (WTF)
As mentioned, “Curtains’” final shot was practically a fade to white, which is pretty WTF, but not in an earned way. The twist of having Julia be the monarch has no precedent or really any logic whatsoever, and neither does her acceptance of this apparent role (whatever the hell it entails). That said, it seems pretty clear the writers ended the season in as vague a way as possible which suggests little to no plan at all for a second season, which isn’t a good sign.
d. Are you getting answers? Do they make sense? (Not really)
Other than Mrs. Rennie having some connection to or foreknowledge of THE DOME, and the fact that it occasionally facilitates communication between The Pink Star Seizure Gang and what are almost certainly aliens, we don’t really know any of its purpose. It vaguely seems like the aliens want to test the humans so they can earn their survival either from the aliens or the human race itself, but that’s more from my inferences than the show’s implications, of which there are very few.
3. Is there any scope for the show to reinvent itself, with a brand new storyline or a shaken up cast? (Yes)
As mentioned, practically anything can come from that WTF ending, which demonstrates the show’s absolute vacuousness, but with being completely hollow there comes the possibility to fill that void with anything so, that’s hopeful…right?
Well, by my count Under the Dome is three for ten, and that’s being generous. As I’ve already said, there’s no way I’ll ever watch this show again. Sitting through its thirteen episodes has been a learning experience, and in the end amusing in that “I’ve lost all hope” kind of way, but ultimately this was the biggest TV circle-jerk I’ve ever been privy to since ABC’s The River. Never heard of it? That’s because like Under the Dome it was a piece of garbage. Anyway, I hope that once you got over your initial disappointment in this show and accepted your fate to suffer through it, as I did, you at least enjoyed laughing at it. Thanks for sticking around. Now go watch some Deadwood.
(Special thanks to Charlie Jane Anders and her perceptive article at io9.com, “How to Tell if a TV Show is Going to Improve After a Weak First Season”.)