[6 November 2013]
There’s a certain method to a Stephen King story that has been notoriously difficult to capture onscreen, either due to the limited length of a motion picture in comparison to a novel, or the fact that King’s characters and their most important mannerisms are developed silently in the pensively introspective moments when each character remembers his or her own experiences.
King has a penchant for jumping around in time and slowly revealing pieces of his stories until the full tapestry comes into view. These silent moments translate to the screen in either obvious and melodramatic ways or not at all. The action generally works, but the thoughtful character evolution is replaced by expository dialogue and a closeup on a character’s face for a quick wink, nod, or emotional reveal that can feel forced, even if it matches the source material exactly. Otherwise, the story elements are either deleted out of necessity or left as a mystery.
There’s no shortage of mystery in the first season of CBS’ Under The Dome, but the question is whether these mysteries are truly answered or resolved during the run of the 13-episode first season. Many of these shifting mysteries, from the overarching (no pun intended) question of what the title dome is and why it appeared over the small town of Chester’s Mill, to the episodic and small story-arc questions necessarily must remain unresolved to keep the show going beyond the one-week timeline of the novel the series was based on. With the series’ renewal for a second season already announced, fans may get the answers they deserve and with such divergences from the original novel, many of these resolutions can’t be found in the source material or its Wikipedia page.
As the first season debuts on Blu-ray without the cliffhangers before commercial breaks, some of the suspense is lost in this saga, but the high definition image looks better than ever. The premise concerns an invisible, impenetrable and inexplicable dome slams into Earth and encapsulates a small town and imprisons everyone inside. The government is baffled, the citizens are frightened and the resources inside are dwindling. The beauty of the image and sound make the premise of the saga all the more tangible and enthralling. While the dome itself is invisible, a light glare or reflection looks incredible on this disc. As the dome is sprayed with water or covered by monarch butterflies, the picture looks like something out of a dream.
The society of Chester’s Mill and the lack thereof is the cornerstone to the drama we find here. The lone remaining city councilman, a smooth used car salesman named Big Jim Rennie (Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris) takes charge of the city government while the police department finds its numbers falling fast, either due to isolation or death and the small, local radio station becomes the sole disseminator of news and announcements (even cell phone reception is interrupted). This paves the way for former army veteran Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel) to become a hero for the city and a pillar of the community in spite of the fact that his past is as mysterious as the reason why he’s in the town in the first place.
The examination of this microcosm of humanity trapped together and fighting to survive when the every staple of society (from citizenship to law and order) becomes questionable takes center stage, much more than the science fiction element of the reason for this isolation. With no one able to enter or leave the dome, does money, power or citizenship matter anymore? The directors and producers (the latter including Stephen Spielberg and King himself) do an excellent job of postulating and hypothesizing what might happen in a situation this bizarre.
However, when the story gets too deep into itself a certain episodic predictability lessens the mystery, especially in the second half of the season. While Under the Dome never stops being engrossing and watchable, a certain melodrama kicks into high gear in later episodes, especially when the writers attempt to link the dramatic and tense moments with the science fictional and the mysterious. The two sides of the dome do not always balance well and for all the strangeness of the premise, there are several textbook television moments that the audience would be hard pressed to not see coming.
That said, there’s a lot more to this show than weirdness and surface tensions. In general the drama is remarkably well done, with tense suspense and a believable look at realistic people in an unbelievable and unreal situation. In short, Under the Dome is an addictive and exciting show that’s hard to quit. Like many of King’s better works, Under the Dome gets better with repeated experiences. Re-watching the first season reveals much more of the underlying and interlocking plot points and allows the show to rise above its occasional flaws.
When Under the Dome is good, it’s very good. When Under the Dome falls flat, it’s still good enough to stay tuned for the next installment and see where this saga is going. For a more artistic and challenging look at a similar premise, see the 2012 German-language film Die Wand (The Wall), in which an individual person is trapped inside her own microcosm behind a very Dome-like wall.
For an exciting and addictive TV show that is fun to watch each week, Under the Dome is worth getting trapped in. The Blu-ray package is packed with documentaries, interviews and deleted scenes, including a detailed comparison between the book and series to date and Stephen King’s own analysis of the show and its evolution.