In the not-too-distant future, the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill—a small and seemingly idyllic town in Anywhere, U.S.A.—suddenly discover their town is trapped inside an invisible barrier of unknown origin. Birds fall from the sky, numerous vehicles crash, and a blood-red handprint on this transparent dome becomes a sigil of awe and fear.
This is the basis for CBS’s intriguing new “event” drama series, Under the Dome, which begins its 13-episode summer run tonight at 10 p.m. (While some have referred to it as a “miniseries,” it is most definitely an ongoing series, with the strong possibility of future seasons should ratings take off.) Based on Stephen King’s 2009 novel of the same name, Under the Dome imagines a scenario that is both rife with possibility and nightmare. Trapped and with nowhere to turn, Chester Mill’s residents must either work together to survive or succumb to the terror and uncertainty of their new situation, one that has cut them off from both loved ones and the outside world. So, live together, die alone then?
If that reminds you of the now-famous words uttered by reluctant leader Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) on Lost, you’re on the right track. Under the aegis of executive producers Steven Spielberg, Neal Baer (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, ER, and far too many other credits to list here), and Brian K. Vaughan (Lost), the series imagines a terrifying “what if” scenario that positions the inexplicable as a backdrop for the intimate.
Much like Lost before it, Under the Dome presents a life-altering occurrence as a crucible by which to view a group of disparate characters. Barbie (Mike Vogel), a former soldier, is passing through Chester’s Mill on some illicit business when he’s trapped inside. Local newspaper editor Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre) has a nose for news but seems oblivious to what’s going on inside her own home. Angie (Britt Robertson) is a local nurse who is desperate to escape Chester’s Mill even before the dome, but finds herself trapped inside with her emotionally unstable boyfriend, Junior (Alexander Koch). Local bigwig Jim Rennie (Dean Norris), a used-car salesman and councilman, looks to use the dome to seize control of the town. A lesbian couple from Los Angeles, Carolyn (Aisha Hinds) and Alice (Samantha Mathis), taking their troubled daughter (Mackenzie Lintz) to a “camp,” find themselves stuck as well.
Elsewhere, there are a pair of local radio DJs (Nicholas Strong and Joleen Purdy), the stoic town sheriff (Lost’s Jeff Fahey) and his trusted deputy, Linda (Natalie Martinez), and a subplot that indicates that the financial stability of the town may be based on less-than-legal solutions. It’s this latter element that is perhaps the most timely, given the recent economic downturn and its similar handling over on A&E’s Bates Motel: how does Small Town America remain viable? How creative do towns like Chester’s Mill have to be in order to survive in the 21st century?
And then there’s the dome itself, which lands with a cataclysmic thud to forever alter the lives of those stuck on either side. As directed by Niels Arden Oplev (who directed the original Swedish-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), the first episode is both stunning and terrifying to behold, particularly the sequence in which the dome materializes without warning, slicing through homes and resulting in a nasty bit of bovine bisection that leaves little left to the imagination. The violence of the dome’s inexplicable appearance is keenly felt here, slick with blood and horror, as it is in a sequence where outsiders Carolyn and Alice—along with daughter Norrie—attempt to drive out of Chester’s Mill. While the special effects here are fantastic, it’s the actors who do the most effective job at conveying the true horror of the revelation that they’re trapped.
That revelation, however, comes a little too soon to the characters. While it becomes clear that there is a barrier blocking the roads, it felt as though the townspeople resign themselves to their situation a little too easily. Yes, it appeared as though they were trapped, but how did they come to this conclusion so quickly? Why didn’t they attempt to find the boundaries of this mysterious barrier? (In watching, I realized I would have spray-painted a line around the whole of the inside of the dome, if only to mark the invisible barrier itself and see how far it extended.) But that’s a bit of a quibble for a first episode that relies on such an underlying concept such as this one, and there needs to be a little bit of a sense of suspension of disbelief when talking about an invisible dome being plunked on top of a town. Still, I felt relieved that Baer and Vaughan told press a few weeks ago that Episode Two would find the townspeople attempting to dig under the dome itself. (SPOILER: It doesn’t work!)
Certain characters gel from the start. Vogel is fantastic as the Sawyer-esque “Barbie,” a ne’er-do-well who is forced into the role of hero and whose crimes are temporarily erased because of his new situation; it’s a darker, more muscular role that suits Vogel far better than his recent turn on Bates Motel. Likewise, Lefevre is appealingly tart as newspaperwoman Julia, who doesn’t even blink when a neighbor tells her that she gets her “news like everyone else, from the Internet.” It’s immediately clear that these two are being set up as potential love interests, but Vogel and Lefevre have such an easy chemistry that it’s hard not to mind the puppeteer’s strings being quite so obvious.
Robertson is fantastic as poor, trapped Angie, who—along with her brother, Joe (Colin Ford)—are separated from their parents from the dome. Her sense of desperation escalates severely when she finds herself in a situation from which it’s more impossible to escape. Unfortunately, Robertson is saddled with a less than stellar co-star in Koch, who plays her unstable boyfriend, Junior. The enormous emotional transitions that Junior undergoes in the first episode alone are far from smooth, both in terms of how the character is written and how Koch plays him, careening from puppy love to despair to murderous rage. (It doesn’t help that Koch himself often seems to be channeling Leo from Smash here.) Koch is a rare weak spot, however, among a strong cast—that includes Breaking Bad’s Norris—that promises some hefty character drama in the weeks to come.
The set-up innately promises a lot of conflict, as the townspeople look for a way to escape the dome and adjust to their new lives, now isolated from the rest of the world. Can this group come together? Will warring factions emerge as some seek to profit from the dome? How does an event like this one tear relationships asunder and push new ones together? And how do secrets remain buried under such scrutiny?
I’m intrigued enough by the character dynamics to want to stick around Chester’s Mill, even before the paranormal subplots kick in: what’s up with the strange visions and seizures experienced by the teens? (“The stars are falling in lines.”) Where did the dome come from and what is its power source? Why this town and why now? And: is the dome offensive or defensive? Should we be wondering if it’s meant to keep people trapped inside or to prevent others from getting in? Hmmm…
There’s likely enough mythology here to keep viewers who enjoy theorizing satisfied all summer, while those looking for micro-level character-driven drama can find that in abundance as well. By fusing those two elements together, the show’s producers have wisely created a drama which functions on multiple levels, depending on the viewer’s propensity for conjecture. Under the Dome manages to be a domestic drama, a disaster film, and a horror-filled science-fiction tale rolled into one, with some romance, humor, and pathos thrown in for good measure.
I haven’t read King’s book, so I can’t compare the first episode of Under the Dome to the underlying material (nor have I seen past the pilot episode, which was all that was provided to critics), but ultimately Baer and Vaughan’s efforts point toward Under the Dome offering an alternately effervescent and tense viewing experience, one that’s perfect for the long, hazy days of summer.