This pilot review is mostly a non-spoiler affair. Future episode reviews will delve more freely into the story and character depth, but the uninitiated won’t find any major surprises revealed this time around.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Stephen King product on network television, and CBS’ Under the Dome feels like the right way to get back up on that particular horse. Fast-paced, reliably paranoid, and surprisingly strong in the visual effects department, Monday night’s premiere episode of this ambitious, would-be series was everything you could want from this set-up. If there’s plenty of King’s trademark cheese and latent humanist navel-gazing present, at least the hour-long earns them and suggests that arriving at its grand conclusions will be an engaging journey for the audience.
Lost alum Brian K. Vaughan, author of speculative fiction classic, Y: The Last Man, heads up Under the Dome and his detail-driven, multi-faceted approach to King’s bulky, over-heated novel gives it a refreshing urgency. There have been whispers already that Vaughan wants the project to grow to series length and that he and the writers have concocted a brand new ending that deviates from the second-rate Twilight Zone rehash that King penned originally.
All of this information is heartening, as it implies that Vaughan and company have something to prove, and that the show isn’t intended as a one-off summer schedule-filler. Those who cringed at Mick Garris’ leaden direction in some of King’s bigger television vehicles can also rest easy as Dome gets a proper treatment that plays more like a legitimate theatrical release. Part of this, of course, can be chalked up to the presence of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Niels Arden Oplev behind the camera for the premiere.
Like King’s book, the set-up is simultaneously absurd and harrowing. One unassuming day, the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill find a terrifying change to their existence; a massive, invisible wall—ultimately revealed to be a gargantuan dome—has covered their town, blocking out sound and rescue from the outside world. Although it injures many and bisects a cow with alarming efficiency, the narrative effect of the dome is similar to other confounding King scenarios– the Captain Tripps Super-flu in The Stand or that shrouded fog bank full of monsters in The Mist–isolating its human beings so they are left to the mercy of their own flawed natures. Into this potboiler setting come a number of promising characters, along with a few who will no doubt have some viewers rooting for their immediate departure.
After Oplev’s masterful show-opener recreating an image similar to the book’s lovely dust-jacket—with a bait-and-switch surprise all its own, surely foreshadowing the manipulation to come—we are slowly introduced to all the main players, most of them town residents, one or two travelers who get caught when the dome goes up. They resemble a respectable smattering of King regulars: the intrepid female journalist, the mysterious, dangerous man in need of redemption, the sinister small-town opportunist, the weary lawman, the fresh-faced teens who just want out, and the old lady who ominously portends the trouble on the horizon. There are even a few new spins on reliable standbys; that outsider couple with a precocious kid are now interracial lesbians with a surly Goth daughter and the moon-eyed high-schooler who’s still in love with his third-grade sweetheart is really an obsessed nutter. Like Lost, there’s even time in this first hour for a few twists and turns, realigning our understanding of who these people are, where they might be headed, and how likely they are to survive future episodes.
The acting is largely competent and confident, and it’s nice to see a solid cast that also isn’t an overly familiar one. Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, as blustery Jim Rennie, is slightly over-the-top given the level of escalation here, but anyone who’s seen the actor in other roles will know he has the chops to deliver the menace necessary as the character progresses. I’m always up for more Jeff Fahey, in anything really, and his Chief Duke Perkins is a weary but winsome fellow, a Frank Lapidus clone capable of trading bristly machismo with Norris in a way that elevates their confrontations.
Mike Vogel (Bates Motel) as Dale “Barbie” Barbara is the quintessential King protagonist (although the wacko name is an strange departure) and if Lost fans are looking for another character analog, he’s clearly this series’ Sawyer. The opening sees him burying a body, a departure for the book’s Barbie, and he’s seemingly got a backlog of secrets that will contrast against the good-guy heroics he displays when the dome damage hits. Vogel’s also got some palpable chemistry with Rachelle Lefevre, who’s fetching as the no-nonsense Julia Shumway, a newspaper editor following a lead involving ominous propane hording on the edge of town.
Of the other characters, only a few really register; brother and sister Joe and Angie McAllister are left ‘dome alone’ because their mom is having brunch at Denny’s one town over and dad is on the road, creepy Junior is Angie’s spurned lover and the kind of agitant no one wants around when you are sealed within an impenetrable force-field, deputy Linda Esquival has a fiancé on the other side but in the meantime she’s doing her best to sally-forth with Chief Perkins, provided the latter’s pacemaker stops going wonky around the wall. There’s certainly more than enough potential development to keep Dome interesting as it revs up, and since Chester’s Mill no doubt has a whole bevvy of other character possibilities just waiting for a full season renewal, the show’s creators have plenty of material to work with.
As a whole, Under the Dome is bursting with potential and with tasty intrigue; we know things are about to go wonky, with plenty of socially precarious scenarios poised to rear their ugly head, and a ton of secrets waiting to jump up and bite their keepers. All of that, without even considering the titular dome, whose nature will likely remain a mystery for a long time coming. The final shot of last night’s episode emphasized that the show plans to traffic in the dark and unexpected, while still putting character development first.
To wrap up, the pilot is a decidedly well-paced and absorbing first step—in fact it’s one of the finest hours of any King televised programming—and for those who haven’t had this particular itch scratched in a great number of years, it’s good to have the master of horror back on the small screen where we can spend all summer agonizing along with his characters as the sinister starts hitting the fan.
What are you thoughts on Under the Dome? Do you think it has enough juice for a while series, or should Vaughan and the showrunners keep their sights set on a more realistic miniseries format?
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