Under the Dome - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
If there is one thing above all else that Stephen King writes well, it's stories where a Mid-American town under extreme duress when they are flung into an extraordinary situation. In 'Needful Things' the town of Castle Rock tears itself apart thanks to the influence of Leland Gaunt and in 'The Mist' the supermarket in Bridgton, Maine turns from haven to hell when the townspeople become indoctrinated by religious extremism in the face of a cosmic threat. In taking the simple premise of "big trouble in a small town" King lets the true nature of people bubble to the surface making them show their true colours. With 'Under the Dome' he looks at how the residents of Chester's Mill cope with being cut off from the rest of the world when a giant invisible and indestructible dome cuts everyone under it off from the rest of the world.
Director: Jack Bender, Peter Leto, David Barrett (4 or more episodes)
Starring: Dean Norris, Mike Vogel, Alexander Koch, Rachelle Lefevre, Britt Robertson
Written by: Alexandra McNally, Cathryn Humphris, Caitlin Parish, Andres Fisher Centeno, Peter Calloway, Adam Stein (4 or more episodes)
Produced by: Randy Sutter, Agatha Warren, Peter Calloway, Adam Stein, Niels Arden Oplev
Cinematography by: Cort Fey, Walt Lloyd, David Geddes, Derek E. Tindall
Original Score by: W.G. Snuffy Walden, A. Patrick Rose
An invisible and mysterious force field descends upon the small town of Chester's Mill, Maine, USA, trapping residents inside, cut off from the rest of civilization.
King has said on many occasions that he doesn't have a notebook to jot down his ideas believing it to be a sure fire method for retaining bad ideas. For him the best ideas stick around irrespective of whether or not they are written down. This process is how 'Under the Dome' came to fruition. He initially came up with the idea for the novel in the 70's when he was still a high school teacher, writing a few dozen pages of it before setting it aside but the idea never left him. It evolved into what became an unfinished novel called The Cannibals which he wrote in the 80s. The story involved people trapped in an apartment complex near Philadelphia who resort to cannibalism. After hitting a wall with the book he abandoned it and it became lost until 2009 when it resurfaced only now it was missing several pages.
In Douglas E. Winter's book 'The Art of Darkness' King recalls the opening scene of 'Under the Dome' where a woodchuck gets cut in half by the dome when it first materialises around Chester's Mill. This memory sparked King's interest in the story again so he decided to take another stab at the story. Although the idea felt too big in scale for him he felt that the time was right for him to write the story once and for all. The book drew a lot of comparisons with 'The Stand' but King felt that the 'Under the Dome' was more allegorical pointing to environmental and political issues at the time being an influence. Despite issues with the ending, the novel was generally well received by critics and audiences alike.
Initially the television adaptation of the novel was announced in November 2009 but it wasn't until almost two years later that Brian K. Vaughan was hired to pen the series for US cable network Showtime. Entertainment president for Showtime, David Nevins felt the project wasn't right for their network so he suggested to Nina Tassler that their network of CBS would be better suited for the project. They immediately were interested in it and assigned television producer Neal Baer to be the showrunner. In November 2012 that CBS had bypassed ordering a pilot and gave 'Under the Dome' a thirteen-episode straight-to-series commitment. With this locked in, Baer believed that the show could run for five 13 episode seasons.
The opening of the pilot episode introduces Chester's Mill as the idyllic all American town where everyone knows each other and nothing can possibly go wrong. Just as we get to know a little bit about each major character in the show, the Dome crashes down in an impressive sequence that includes a cow being sliced in half and an aeroplane colliding into the side of the dome. Instantly you are locked into the character's confusion and distress over the situation as the episode moves at a rapid pace leaving you with little to no time to catch your breath. It was this kind of opening that made the show an instant hit with the opening episode drawing in over 13.5 million viewers (which would rapidly decline over the course of its three season run). With this strong base alongside an interesting concept (even though some might see it as a rip off of The Simpsons Movie) full of potential, it is interesting to see how the Dome ultimately becomes not just the greatest strength but the greatest weakness of the show.
When placed in such a predicament you are presented with the perfect opportunity to explore the darkness and light of humanity. In an interview with Simon and Schuster books in 2009 King said, "you're only as sick as your secrets and some of the people in the book are pretty sick indeed". Whilst the show does its utmost to explore that concept with the characters like Big Jim (Dean Norris) and his son Junior (Alexander Koch) it feels truncated from going completely dark as the edges appear to have been smoothed off by CBS. What we get instead is something along the lines of a soap opera as everything is so melodramatic and clean, even in some pretty dark scenarios like the kidnapping of Angie (Britt Robertson) by Junior, that it creates a tonal imbalance that gets the show off on the wrong foot.
As season one progresses the cracks in the show spread further as each episode becomes a "dilemma of the week" situation. In one episode there would be a major fire in the town which would be followed by an episode where a serious infectious disease afflicts the majority of the town. They serve as distractions to the overarching storylines and character arcs. What is worse is how they have no lasting impact as characters move on from the deaths of their friends and family in an instant turning their attention back to the Dome. These lack of consequences even affect the continuity of the show as one episode would feature someone dying of a near fatal injury but in the next episode they are up and about walking like nothing has happened to them when only a few hours have passed within the show. As the episodes progress these situations feel more like padding to detract from the issue of the dome. With this kind of start the show sets itself on a path of taking one step forward and two steps back.
This style of writing has severe knock on effects on the development of the characters too. Their decision making in the script usually leads to some very bland acting where you find it difficult to buy into the different relationships between characters as you can almost tell that the actors can't get a centre of who their characters really are as they seem to change dramatically from episode to episode to try and create a sense of drama. This is particularly evident in the main romance of the show between Iraq war veteran Dale "Barbie" Barbera (Mike Vogul) and local journalist Julie Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre). In the space of around two weeks she forgives Barbie for murdering her husband and falls in love with him in a storyline that the writers of something like 'Eastenders' or 'Coronation Street' would deem too unrealistic. Because of these writing choices their acting is never anything above the level of the Hallmark channel. This is the same throughout the rest of the cast with the exception of Dean Norris as Big Jim. Despite the lapses in believability he always manages to carry a degree of menace and unpredictability that makes him an intriguing watch.
The first season ends on a cliffhanger with Big Jim in the process of carrying out the execution of Barbie to cover up for his own crimes as the town is shrouded in darkness. Julie throws a mysterious egg (said to be the dome's power source) into the lake which causes a blinding white light to smother the town. The second season opens directly after this with a loud noise ringing from the dome as it becomes highly magnetised, drawing all metallic items to its outer shell. In the process of investigating this, one of the main characters of the show, Linda (Natalie Martinez) is crushed by an SUV. This is an example of one of the things that makes 'Under the Dome' a draw as anyone can get killed off at any time. In the opening episode the town sheriff Howard 'Duke' Perkins (Jeff Fahey) dies suddenly at the end of it and throughout the season many more characters who you think will be regulars are suddenly killed off out of the blue. The only issue is that they aren't really impactful as the majority of these characters aren't really fleshed out at all leaving no emotional impact to their demise.
The concept behind every season of the show can be summed up in one word. Season 1 is about survival as the people of Chester's Mill try to survive every problem the Dome throws at them. Season 2 is about escape as the town realises that life inside the Dome is unsustainable. Season 3 is about conflict as two factions within the town face off against each other. The first season sets up many mystery laden subplots which are addressed in season two. One such subplot looks into the background of the egg that seems to be powering the dome which creates more questions than answers the more we learn about it.
When it comes to getting answers to the mysteries presented by Stephen King's stories more times than not you can be left unsatisfied, but the author himself has said on many occasions he is not so much concerned about the scenario but in how people react to it. Lessons weren't learned from the first season as the nature of the writing means we don't care for the characters as much as we should. This gradual unravelling of the show in Season 2 is noticeable throughout but it is nothing compared to how it is all torn apart in the third and final season.
The second season ends with Barbie on the cusp of leading the people of Chester's Mill out of the dome through a portal under the high school (see the above paragraph). They reach a wall which crumbles revealing the mysterious character of Melanie (Grace Victoria Cox) who offers to lead them "home". It is this kind of cliffhanger that lures you in despite the poor quality of everything that has preceded it. As a whole the show really is a case of fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. By the time season three rolls around it is a case of shame all round.
Picking up straight after the events of the previous season, the dome shatters as the survivors of Chester's Mill make their way out of it and to safety. We then flash forward a year later to a memorial ceremony back in Chester's Mill where we see how many of the characters have moved on but all isn't as it seems. We find out that this is an alternative reality and the truth is that the survivors of the dome are in fact still underground in pods under the control of an alien race known as The Kinship. Their goal is to evolve their own species in an invasion (a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers) by taking control of the people of Chester's Mill. By this point, the series has strayed so far from the source material that fans of the novel had to be placated by Stephen King who wrote an open letter saying that the novel and the series are their own separate thing and can be enjoyed in that manner.
Sadly there is no enjoyment to be had with the third season which was reflected in the diminishing ratings. In its ambition, the show pushed things too far with the alternate reality angle that it led to confusion and plot holes abound with the writers overwriting of the season digging themselves into a deeper hole. They even overestimate how much the audience actually cares about the characters at this point. For example, as a cheap trick to draw empathy from the despicable Big Jim they give him a dog and an anti-hero arc to try and make us care about him but you can see right through this lazy tactic. The reality of the situation is that by the time the series closes one of the only reasons you continue to watch the show is to see how things turn out in relation to the dome becoming an inverse to Stephen King's intentions with the story through his novel.
Adapting a novel like 'Under the Dome' for network television was always going to be a challenge and the end result is a very muddled affair that gets progressively worse. If you were to sum up the series problems in one word it would be inconsistency. There are inconsistencies in the plot, dialogue, characters and acting which makes for a very draining watch. In trying to stretch out the premise of the show it becomes very repetitive and as mentioned earlier almost on the same level as a soap opera at times. In short 'Under the Dome' is an example of having a great premise and not knowing what to do with it.