UNDER THE DOME, based on the humongous novel of the same name by Stephen King, is a new series which begins airing tonight on CBS with an exceptionally strong pilot. A pilot, being the first episode produced of a television program, is a difficult thing to judge and a dangerous thing to get overly enthusiastic about. For one thing, CBS is not the number-one network because of its commitment to adventurous and original material. Instead, it generally makes its bread on ghoulish murder-procedurals and goonish hate-comedies. Getting thrilled about a smart and creative CBS genre drama would be like making wedding plans after a good first date.
Moreover, this newish trend of blogging-TV-series-as-you-go is inherently flawed: You can’t review a TV series based on its first, second, or third episode. At best, that’s like reviewing the first, second, or third chapter of a book, or reviewing a baby deer before it grows into a stag or doe. At worst, you have something like my glowing review of the first episode of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, which was a case of me putting a down payment on a honeymoon in Vegas, not knowing that the bride was about to stand me up at the altar, only to return that night in the form of a werewolf in order to massacre the entire wedding party.
So I cautiously, yet emphatically, encourage you to check out the first episode of UNDER THE DOME. It’s a solid start and one that makes you want to see more. Like many of the newer high-concept high-prestige major-network experiments (i.e. HANNIBAL), UNDER THE DOME has been given a limited order of thirteen episodes. That is a good sign. It’s basically a guarantee of getting to see at least one complete story arc. If it works out, there’s every indication there’s still plenty of story for further seasons.
UNDER THE DOME is vintage Stephen King: A sprawling epic with a supernatural high-concept – a small town is entirely enclosed by a mysterious, invisible, and deadly forcefield – which is populated by multi-faceted, believable human characters. This being King, we can be sure that we will meet a megalomaniac, a deranged reverend, a corrupt authority figure, a flawed hero who has to rise to the occasion, a steely heroine, a hipster with dated references, and most likely a noble simpleton in overalls. The man does have his leitmotifs. It is an exciting prospect, then, to know that the show is being overseen by Brian K. Vaughan, an imaginative writer best known for his work in comics (the superlative Y: THE LAST MAN), who shares some of King’s strengths (a commitment to strong characters) while also having a history of uniquely modern sociopolitical concerns in his work. The showrunner is Neal Baer, who worked on long-running TV dramas such as ER and LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.
Film is a medium that works best as a singular or binary vision – a writer providing a worthy story and then a director (sometimes the same person) commanding a legion of talented craftsmen. Film is collaborative to a point. Good television is intensely, thoroughly collaborative. The notion of auteurism in TV is pretty much bullshit. It’s just not even how it works. The writers and showrunners provide the story and the division of labor. The director of photography (in this case, Cort Fey, DP on some of LOST’s best episodes) determines the look, often in collusion with the pilot’s director (in this case, Niels Arden Opev of the original film version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO). The casting department is of pivotal importance. They have to dig up not just the leads, but the dozens of supporting characters who may or may not be around for the duration of the series. Casting is so important in television – these decisions are maybe the most important a series can make. The casting directors for UNDER THE DOME, and the showrunners, truly excelled in this case.
Mike Vogel (CLOVERFIELD, BATES MOTEL) plays the nominal hero, Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a military veteran who we first encounter burying a dead body in the woods. Mike Vogel is an actor who has been kicking around movies and TV for a while without leaving too deep an impression so far – that’s a good thing. He looks like the prototypical heroic character but we don’t really know him too well: Could he be a bad guy after all?
Dean Norris, a journeyman character actor who finally hit with deserved prominence as the lovable Hank Schrader on BREAKING BAD, here plays the town bigshot, politician-slash-car-dealership-owner Big Jim Rennie. He’s charismatic and outgoing, but in a way that suggests he could easily be bullshitting. Dean Norris is the kind of actor who is engaging to watch whether he’s playing good or bad, and talented enough to play the ambiguity that this role is clearly building up to require.
Rachelle Lefevre plays Julia Shumway, a town reporter who is already investigating some unusual activity in the area before the dome descends and she gets a new story. I guess she’s known for acting in TWILIGHT, but I’ve seen her do smart supporting work in lesser-known movies like BARNEY’S VERSION and CASINO JACK, obviously pretty but with an equally obvious intelligence.
Natalie Martinez, seen recently in END OF WATCH, plays Deputy Linda Esquivel, a recently-married officer who is trapped inside the dome with her fireman husband on the outside. Again, it’s nice to have a pretty person to look at (“You wouldn’t mind getting trapped under a dome with her” — Maxim Magazine, probably), but you also need an actress who you can buy as a cop, and that’s what you get here. She also has some nice camaraderie with genre mainstay Jeff Fahey, who plays her boss, Sheriff Duke Perkins, a likable enough local guy who may be hiding a few things.
From top to bottom, this is a well-cast pilot. It even has a few nice surprises which I won’t mention. It looks great, which is common for TV at this point, but there is an uncommon attention to visual imagery which I appreciated. Intriguingly, the story accelerates at a more rapid pace than one might expect: For one thing, the dome arrives ten minutes in, whereas a less bold series might draw this pivotal development out. And when it arrives, it causes a surprising amount of gore. Horror fans will not be disappointed – yet at the same time, it’s done with surprising class and almost scientific presentation: This is, after all, what would probably happen if a gigantic invisible forcefield suddenly surrounded a busy farming town. It’s that balanced juggling of the imaginary and the recognizable which characterizes the best of Stephen King.
UNDER THE DOME is true to its source, yet kinetic and cinematic in its own right and very promising for what is to come. I know better than to get overly excited too early, but I can tell you now that I will be in it for all thirteen episodes, and I am willing to recommend you all do the same.
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