Small Towns Harbor Small Imaginations
On the surface, Chester’s Mill, Maine is like any other small town in America: friendly and interdependent, dotted with resilient local institutions, peopled by hospitable locals with deep community roots. Beneath the surface, it’s also like any other small town in America: riven by rivalries, secrets, and resentments, threatened by urbanization and corporate retail expansion, with a citizenry alternately planning to run the town or to run away from it.
We meet the citizens of this fictional place at the start of Under the Dome. Sheriff Howard “Duke” Perkins (Jeff Fahey) and his deputy Linda Esquivel (Natalie Martinez) both cast a wary eye on the town’s darker corners. Angie (Britt Robertson) works two jobs and carries on a summer fling with chiseled college boy Junior (Alexander Koch), who may be cute but ain’t quite right upstairs, if you follow me. Town councilor and used car salesman Big Jim Rennie (Dean Norris) reads Churchill biographies and relishes his responsibilities as resident grandee. And a sinister man with a cut above his eye who calls himself Barbie (Mike Vogel) buries a body in shallow grave in the woods.
If all this sounds eerily like the setup of a Stephen King novel, that’s because it is precisely that, or at least is based on precisely that. The unexplained incident that forces everyone into new and uncomfortable relations with their environment and each other is revealed in such a delicious piecemeal method that it’s a shame to spoil it, but then the title itself is the primary culprit there.
The entire town of Chester’s Mill (along with much of its rural environs) is suddenly, unexpectedly encased in a thin yet impermeable dome of transparent glass. Birds, planes, and cars run flush into the nearly invisible border with deadly force, and its abrupt emergence slices buildings, people, and cows (the latter leading to a memorably gooey moment) into segments indiscriminately. Fire trucks and soon the military and other authorities arrive, but they offer no answers or even assistance to those stranded inside. They’ll have to find their own way to survive.
King’s metaphor for the town’s isolation is evident enough, but the prevailing image of the fishbowl is made explicit in a cigarette break conversation between Angie and Barbie. Sociologically speaking, Under the Dome offers some promise of exploring the ways that a small town’s insularity might breed conservatism when the option of escape is removed. The laboratory conditions under which Chester’s Mill’s population is placed are bound to amplify preexisting community tensions and anxieties.
Any such critique should be expected to trickle through in between the more sensationalist intrigues that hold sway over the pilot’s plot, however. In addition to Barbie’s body disposal, Junior manifests behavior more troubling than that of your run-of-the-mill jealous boyfriend, and Duke and Big Jim appear to share a major, problematic secret involving huge shipments of propane, recently discovered by the intrepid new editor of the local newspaper (Rachelle Lefevre). And because this is a Stephen King creation, it includes as well some supernatural complications. The surface of the dome administers mild shocks when an individual first touches it, interferes with electronic signals, and appears to cause epileptic episodes in teenagers in its proximity, and victims begin uttering cryptic phrases that sound, disconcertingly, of course, like prophecies.
Thrusting a varied cast of characters armed with clashing agendas, closeted skeletons, and guns into a strange, science-fiction-inflected ordeal of isolation, Under the Dome immediately suggests Lost, as well as its abortive copycats like FlashForward and Alcatraz (not to mention The Simpsons Movie, which includes a polluted Springfield being covered by a glass dome two years before King’s novel was published). The gradual revelation of the mysteries of the dome and of the characters inside it could well provide several seasons’ worth of dramatic interest.
Although it’s worth reserving judgment on the disposition and spirit of Under the Dome until we’ve seen at least a handful of episodes, it’s fair to say that the pilot embraces the material’s pulpier elements, with none of Lost’s nerdy digression or philosophical trolling (later season Lost writer Brian K. Vaughan developed this show). That said, Under the Dome is already absorbing and entertaining while offering some horror-thriller chills not usually glimpsed on the major networks, helped along by director Niels Arden Oplev’s impressive visual verve. As much as the small town environs invite our assumptions about what’s to come, so too do the narrative allusions, in particular to what transpired on a certain enigmatic Pacific island.