Stephen King’s history with adaptations of his works is shaky at best. Apart from Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant take on The Shining, nothing else has come close to portraying King’s beautifully twisted prose onscreen – including King’s own attempts with the miniseries Storm of the Century and Rose Red. Last night, we tried again with CBS’ Under The Dome, based on King’s 2009 novel of the same name.
In short, it was a capable, if not bumbling pilot. The limits of network television always make their presence felt in instances like this, but it tried. And yet, I can’t help but wonder what this show would have looked like had it been greenlit by Showtime, where it was originally pitched. That’s neither here nor there, though, and what we get is the CBS version. With the Stanley Cup finals ending in spectacular fashion last night, there’s a good chance you didn’t catch the premiere, and if you’re remotely a fan of King, you’re dying to know if it’s worth checking out. Let’s explore that.
We open on a bird hatching, Jurassic Park style, out of an egg while his (or her) mother flies out from the tree, over a man burying a dead body in a miraculously tidy grave, considering he appears to have only dug it with a shovel. We’ll soon find out this is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a man looking to get the hell out of Chester’s Mill, for reasons yet unknown, although that dead body probably has a lot to do with it. Before he can do that, though, he crashes into a field trying to avoid a herd of cows and is witness to one of those cows being chopped in half as an invisible dome plants itself around the town.
The rest of the episode introduces us to all the characters and establishes, in true King fashion, some pretty cut and dried archetypes. There’s Duke Perkins, the crotchety sheriff of the town who apparently has been hiding a few secrets to keep it afloat, namely the reason large shipments of propane have been coming in. Unfortunately, we won’t get to hear his side of the story, because as he touches the seemingly electrified dome at the end of the episode, his pacemaker literally explodes out of his chest.
There’s “Big Jim” Rennie, a used car salesman and councilman of Chester’s Mill who swells with a sense of self-importance when the dome comes down, and establishes himself as the dude that’s gonna try to run shit now that Perkins is dead. There’s Jim’s son Junior, who we first see in the throes of a summertime affair with young Angie, an aspiring doctor looking to get the hell out of the town. Junior expresses his love, Angie says it’s just a fling, and Junior goes cray. He sees her talking to Barbie outside the hospital, and after threatening Barbie, Junior kidnaps Angie from her house and installs her down in the old family fallout shelter, like any protective, caring pseudo-boyfriend would do.
We’ll meet more folks in the coming episodes, but let’s not forget the progressive interracial lesbian couple Carolyn and Alice, and their daughter Norrie, Los Angeles folks who are now trapped with all these countryfolk, and Joe McAlister, a teenager who also witnesses the barrier come down and is going to Hardy Boys the hell out of the situation to figure out what’s going on. Before the end of the episode, both Norrie and Joe collapse into a seizure-like state, comatosely mumbling about “Stars are falling. Stars are falling in lines.”
Finally, there’s local reporter Julia Shumway, a journalist deadset on getting the story. Her husband Peter’s a doctor at the hospital, but he can’t seem to be found. Julia lets Barbie stay at her house for the night, and shows him a picture of her and Peter. As he looks at the photo, we see that Peter Shumway is the man Barbie was burying at the beginning of the episode. UH OH.
- The story itself is a compelling one, and it comes from great source material. Under the Dome is one of King’s longest and most intriguing works, so there’s plenty for the showrunners to work with.
- We’ve got some Lost vets writing for this bad boy. This could be a good or bad thing depending on your feelings toward that show, but agree or disagree, it was one of the most important shows of the aughts and having some folks who took care of business on it won’t hurt.
- There is some gloriously bad dialogue. I listed this on the good because some of King’s best material contains characters saying terribly campy and outlandish things, but it works. After one episode, Under the Dome feels like it could follow much the same trajectory. From Junior telling us that college is “another lame-ass pyramid scheme” to Barbie telling Joe the government didn’t build the dome “because it works” to Sheriff Perkins telling us “if those eggheads [the government] out there can drop a car on Mars, they can figure this out too,” there’s a little B-grade speech for everyone.
- The acting’s not terrible. It’s always easy to overact in a drama, but the cast manages to keep that somewhat under control, at least for now. There aren’t any Emmy-winning performances, but at the moment, you can watch without the urge to harm yourself.
- CBS ordered it all at once and not just the pilot. Although it could create a sense of complacency, hopefully it will remove the pressure of fighting for a place on the schedule and let the team do what they want, at least for this 13-episode first season.
- It’s not all good, and the show’s primary fault is also one of King’s: the characters are entirely too black and white. It’s easy to tell immediately who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy, and there’s very little depth to go around. We can hope that will change as time goes on, but right now, it’s not looking good. The only person with a shred of gray area right now is Barbie, but there’s no doubt he’ll be painted as the knight in shining armor before too long. Everybody is flawed, nobody is perfect, and I hope that Under the Dome starts to show us the good guys’ imperfections before it’s too late to care.
- The conceit of the dome is a fantastic story element, and one that gives the entire town the feel of a classic haunted house story: there’s no way in, there’s no way out, everything must happen in an enclosed space. There’s plenty of time to watch these characters react to circumstances like that, but for now, we were treated to the all-too-familiar kids partying over generic electronic music, almost the entire town gathering at a local restaurant that at the beginning we were told got almost no customers anymore because of a newly opened Denny’s, and Big Jim commandeering a local independent radio station to make an emergency announcement that consisted mostly of exposition, with him constantly repeating that folks should listen. God complex, much?
- The dialogue. Gotta put this in the bad, as well, because if it continues, it might not stay so charming.
- We have to care about the characters. At the moment, we’ve been introduced to everybody, and we’ve also been introduced to the Twin Peaks-style secrets the town hides. The important thing is that the secrets don’t overshadow the characters, and right now, I’m not so sure they won’t do just that. If we don’t care about the people, we don’t care about the show. Right now, that’s the most dangerous cliff the show is teetering on.
Hell, it’s the summer, there’s nothing else on, so don’t kick Under the Dome out of bed just yet. But do let it know it’s in the doghouse. If it doesn’t get a little smarter soon, it’ll be sleeping with the fishes, and terrible metaphors aside, you know what that means.