‘Under the Dome’ premiered Monday night on CBS, and if there’s one thing I took away from the mercurial but mostly enjoyable pilot episode, it’s that this is going to be a fascinating study of premise vs. plot.
Because the premise of this show is fantastic, instantly more interesting than most every science fiction show to premiere this TV season. The quiet town of Chester’s Mill is suddenly and inexplicably (so far) encased in an enormous invisible dome, isolating it from the rest of the world. The town becomes a media sensation, but because all communication is cut off, the residents are left having to fend entirely for themselves and hope that the government figures out how to deactivate the dome.
On top of unsuspecting planes and trucks crashing into the dome, mysterious events start occurring. Two separate teenagers have seizures, foaming at the mouth and only able to mumble, “Stars are falling. Stars are falling in lines.” And right before Sheriff Duke is about to reveal something apparently important to his deputy, his pacemaker explodes.
The overall mystery being set up here is fascinating, and I appreciate the way the pilot launched right into it with little preamble, underscoring how sudden the event was. Within 20 minutes, the dome was up and the townspeople were aware that they were trapped. Unraveling the reason behind the dome’s appearance and figuring out how to disable it is a strong backbone for a science fiction series, the kind of mystery that has the potential to hook a good number of viewers.
Here’s my concern.
Only so much material can be about the dome. Because the entire show is built around it, there’s no chance it’s coming down anytime soon, nor will its origin be revealed in the near future. Though the season is mercifully free from the standard 20+ episode network model, ‘Under the Dome’ is still going to need to come up with 13 episodes worth of content that doesn’t directly center on the premise.
In other words, ‘Under the Dome’ is going to need to figure out a way to tell compelling, character-driven stories to sustain itself long enough to make the roll-out of the central mystery satisfying. And based on the pilot, that’s going to be a dicey proposition.
First, the good. It’s hard to pick a “main character”, but it appears to be a mysterious criminal fellow nicknamed “Barbie”, who we see burying a body but also assessing the situation better than anyone else. He’s taken in by local newspaper editor Julia, whose husband was the man he murdered (not that she knows). The pilot did a good job of setting up this character without tipping whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, and the performance by Mike Vogel is probably the second best on the show.
Second best because the great Dean Norris – Hank from ‘Breaking Bad’, of course – plays Big Jim Rennie, the town councilman and de facto leader of the domed city. The most interesting character moment from the first hour was Jim’s heel turn when talking about the mysterious propane shipments with the now-deceased police chief. Like Barbie, Jim’s motivations are murky, which makes him interesting.
Not so interesting? Oh, let’s start with Jim’s son Junior. In fact, let’s start and end with Junior, because that character is such a monumental misstep that it undermines much of the good work that this pilot does. The “angsty teenager” archetype is often problematic, and here it’s doubly so, given that Junior goes from sleeping with Angie to being a knife-wielding suicide threat/attempted murderer/kidnapper within, oh, the first half hour of the pilot.
The absolute worst moment from the pilot occurs when Junior, having seen Angie flirt with Barbie, ambushes her in her house and knocks her out cold. It’s not only deeply unpleasant, but entirely unearned. For a character like this to not be obnoxious and loathsome, he has to be meticulously set up so that the audience can at least identify with his point of view. Junior’s motivation – that Angie didn’t take their relationship seriously – is laughable and delivered in shorthand, leading the audience to believe that he’s simply a psychopath. Of all the character types on television, “simply a psychopath” is the very least interesting the watch.
I don’t know where Junior’s headed, but I know his debut was catastrophically bad, nearly spoiling the entire pilot. And that’s my concern with ‘Under the Dome’ as a whole – the show clearly has a lot of good ideas, but even a single wayward storyline could derail its momentum.
Overall though, I’m fairly pleased with this pilot and the world it has created, and will be watching for sure next week. If the premise sounds interesting at all to you, I recommend checking out ‘Under the Dome’.