“Under the Dome,” based on the behemoth novel by Stephen King, is a hard thing to adapt. A glossary of characters is needed to keep everything straight, and like all King works most of the action and decision making is done inside the characters head. All of his works are hard to adapt, but “Under the Dome” is one of the harder ones. Unfortunately the new series on CBS jettisons anything that made the novel great, and instead forges ahead into new and underwhelming territory.
“This dome has only one master, and we are its servants.”
In Chester’s Mill, a quiet but rotting town, everyone is embroiled in something seedy, like gambling or drug production, or trying to hide their past. And then BAM, out of the blue and when there are conveniently a lot of people passing through Chester’s Mill, a huge invisible dome crashes down out of the sky, cutting the town off, and impressively slicing one cow in half. Unable to contact the outside world, the citizens of Chester’s Mill must figure out what’s going on while also keeping a lid on every skeevy thing they’ve done.
You would think that having a huge dome inexplicably dropping on a town would be the starting point for an interesting plot, given just how, dare I say ‘alien,’ the situation is, but showrunners Brian K. Vaughn and Neal Baer never capitalize on the strangeness of the situation. After the first day everyone seems remarkably cool about the fact that they are trapped. You only see a few people try to escape, and the dome itself is only mentioned a few times per episode. Episode five makes a bit of a course correction and makes the dome much more central to the story, but it’s already too little too late.
“It’s a small town, son, and we all support the team.”
While it’s nice that the show is concerning itself with themes like human nature, our dependence on technology, and our increasing alienation from each other, it’s strange to see it go to that well so soon. A huge dome just fell out of the sky! Wouldn’t you be freaked out for more than one day? The book had a slow start, only really picking up once there was a riot in a supermarket, but that was because it was too concerned with the dome. The show is going in the exact opposite direction to avoid that problem, but unfortunately by deviating so significantly they’re creating more, less easily resolved creative problems.
Unfortunately the lack of tension and stakes isn’t the only problem with “Under the Dome.” The dialogue given to the teenager protagonists is atrocious, more than usual since these kids are supposed to be hip. Everyone makes really stupid decisions for a quick burst of tension, like when Julia, the firecracker reporter follows the clearly unhinged Junior into the dark and dangerous tunnels under the city. It’s certainly difficult to create high tension from people acting responsibly, but everyone running around like a daft idiot is just as egregious.
At this point in the show, nearly halfway through season one,Dean Norris as the scheming Big Jim is the only real bright spot among the actors. He is punching well below his weight, but he gives his scenes enough gravitas to make them work. In the novel Big Jim was a stereotypical big bad Southerner who twisted every minor thing to his advantage. Dean Norris certainly brings some depth to the character, and hopefully all of the other actors will follow suite.
“Chester’s Mill is a place like any other…”
Falling afoul of clumsy plotting, lack of tension, and some terrible dialogue, “Under the Dome” is nifty but not interesting, and serious but not deep. Trapped in the hard place between serialized and episodic television, the show can’t raise the stakes in any meaningful way, which shouldn’t be a problem because it’s a huge freakin’ dome that fell out of the sky! Once the writers cozy up to that fact and start realistically dealing with how people would react to the dome, “Under the Dome” should improve by leaps and bounds. Until then though, it’s best to take a detour around Chester’s Mill and head to something more interesting.