There’s a sequence in the middle of “Manhunt” that sums up both what’s promising and frustrating about ‘Under the Dome’ through three episodes. Junior – obnxious, angsty Junior – makes a futile attempt to escape the dome through an underground cementworks, and is secretly followed by inexplicably dogged reporter Julia. When Junior fails, Julia reveals herself, and after a hot second of Junior looking like he might attack her, the two end up having a long (LONG) conversation where among other things, Julia reveals the real reason she wound up in Chester’s Mill. Cut to a different part of the town, and Junior’s dad, Big Jim, is delivering an extended monologue about his experiences on the football team to Barbie. Again, LONG talking scene.
Oh right, there’s a manhunt going on. Did I mention this episode is called “Manhunt”? After Big Jim finishes, crazed deputy Paul briefly threatens him before he’s taken down in swift fashion by now-sheriff Linda.
On the plus side, you can rightly commend ‘Under the Dome’ for trying to break free from the tried and true CBS procedural formula. It would have been rather easy (and in retrospect, wise?) to build this whole hour around the titular manhunt, and certainly to milk the conclusion for a whole lot more than that. ‘Under the Dome’ has more ambitious goals though, and “Manhunt” made a clear effort to establish motivations for a good chunk of the central characters in one fell swoop, with a huge chunk of this hour devoted to character exposition, presumably with bigger long-term goals in sight.
So that’s the good news. That bad news is that it failed.
“Manhunt” was maybe not quite the storytelling mess that last week’s also-deceptively-named “The Fire” was, but it was pretty close.
Three hours in, and the big question I have is: What exactly is ‘Under the Dome’ going for?
Is this a horror show? Because what part of this is supposed to be scary? Are we supposed to be scared when Junior discovers that Julia’s been following him? Because: nope. Not even a little.
Is this is a crime show? Judging by the fact that an episode called “Manhunt” contained maybe five minutes of police material, I’d say no.
Is this a thriller? Nope, because the tone of everything is hilariously, bafflingly chilled out. Even the manhunt itself was handled with complete nonchalance. Big Jim warns a nonplussed crowd at the restaurant that Paul escaped, rounds up a couple of townsfolk, and after roughly 90 seconds of screen time (spread out over, oh, 35 minutes of mostly dialogue), problem solved. There is a giant dome around the town, yes – but there’s been no concern about running out of food or water, the only real concern about the lack of power is that the kids’ party fizzled out when the generator blew, the lack of a police force hasn’t been explored beyond the one rogue deputy, the dome itself seems sturdy and permanent…what am I missing? Shouldn’t there be some sort of guillotine blade waiting to drop on these people, making them panic? We’re three hours in and the premise is driving exactly zero percent of the action. Your ENTIRE TOWN is trapped IN A DOME – why is everything so casual?? Why isn’t something about this creating urgency?
Instead, ‘Under the Dome’ is foolishly relying on manufacturing its own hurdles for our main characters. Whether it’s Junior – who continues to be a simply disastrous creation that sponges up screen time that would be better spent literally anywhere else – or the brash teenager at the party who apparently exists solely to make life a little more difficult for young Joe, whose budding relationship with Norrie stands as one of the series’ few bright spots, much of the conflict feels forced and rings hollow.
There are such widespread tonal and storytelling problems with ‘Under the Dome’ that it’s not necessary to dig much deeper, but let’s just say that “Manhunt” proved once and for all that the show’s writing is simply not strong enough to support a dialogue-driven hour. Conversations are dull and mechanical, stories are bland, and whenever the writing goes out on a limb and tries to be interesting or character-specific, it results in groaners like Norrie’s, “I’m not usually a mooch, but without my music, I can get, you know, super bitchy.” A TEENAGER said this. In 2013. A TEENAGER!
‘Under the Dome’ strikes me as a show that doesn’t have a story to tell. It’s got a premise, sure, and probably a skeleton outline of the points the series should hit thanks to the book; but it doesn’t have the slightest clue how to build an interesting show on top of that. Because as soon as the series moved away from dealing directly with its premise, it’s quality has spiraled drastically.
Entering the summer, many of us hoped that ‘Under the Dome’ would be the next ‘Lost’. Now, ‘Under the Dome’ is simply lost.