Series Premiere: Under The Dome – “Pilot”


I haven’t read Under The Dome. I actually don’t think I’ve read anything by Stephen King outside of some scattered short stories (and I might even be making that up). And so I don’t really have much to say on CBS’ Under The Dome as an adaptation, and will gladly let my A.V. Club colleagues Zack and Scott handle that.

There’s more to say about Under The Dome as the most high-profile broadcast scripted summer series in recent memory, although I think Joe Adalain at Vulture has written the definitive piece on just what Under The Dome represents to CBS. It’s there where I’d make one correction to Scott and Zack’s great review: Scott suggests that CBS is counting on the show to be a success, but as Joe reports they’ve already done their counting through a combination of tax incentives, streaming rights, and international distribution rights. While I am sure CBS wants the show to be a success (they’ve got their eye on The Walking Dead-style hype with this one), the show has the kind of security we would normally associate with a basic cable series: even if the ratings are a disappointment, CBS has room to be patient and let the series grow.

Under The Dome‘s pilot is not patient, although that’s sort of the point. Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the pilot notes that there’s a very traditional small town yarn at the heart of the series, and he’s absolutely right. However, while you could imagine a scenario where we’re introduced to the screwed-up small town for an hour before the dome is dropped on them, Brian K. Vaughan’s script wastes no time. The show promised dome, and by golly it’s going to give its audience a dome sooner rather than later.

It’s a smart decision that nonetheless creates my biggest issue with the pilot, one that I’m not even sure I’m convinced will be an issue long term. Vaughan’s script uses chaos to reveal character, finding in the midst of this unbelievable situation their true identity. We meet Barbie burying a body after some kind of nefarious dealing, but after the dome falls he’s saving teenage boys and carrying victims to hospitals; Big Jim’s public smile and his private sneer are equally on display as he asserts his authority as the lone councilman inside the dome; Duke reveals himself to be a good cop who’s made some bad decisions, even if the dome does its part to ensure he isn’t able to correct them. While my brother was right when he reported that the show’s music offers one prominent space where the series connects with Lost, it was this sense of disaster begetting insight into who people really are that struck me as the biggest influence from Vaughan’s previous TV writing gig.

My issue with the pilot surrounds the character of Junior, who is technically part of this phenomenon but functions slightly differently. There’s two ways of looking at Junior. One is that he was always crazy, always on the verge of assault, suicide, kidnapping, and other destructive behavior. In this view, along with his father, Junior represents the sense that something was wrong in Chester’s Mill before a giant dome was on the postcard. However, you could also look at the character as a symptom of the dome: that two teenagers suffer identical seizures (the first was passed off as a symptom of a foodless insulin dose, but the second had no similar justification) and that Duke’s pacemaker explodes out of his chest would give the sense that the dome is doing something to Chester’s Mill, something that could help explain how it is Junior went from “I’m going to quit school to be with you, Lux”—I’m just going to call her Lux—to “I’m going to lock you in a fallout shelter, Lux.”

That all works, basically, except that the whole thing feels like it’s moving way too fast. I understand why it’s there, creating a sense of danger where the Dome otherwise presents a passive threat to most of the show’s characters; Junior’s actions make the potential chaos the dome could create real in a way that a crowded town meeting filled with quiet panic doesn’t. It just becomes so isolated in this one broody, obsessive college kid, a detriment not because it’s too soapy but because it’s the only part of the series that commits to its soap opera so readily. There’s plenty of soap opera in Mike having murdered Julia’s husband Peter, and in the whole idea of a shadowy town council plan involving propane (but not propane acessories?), but that’s mostly there to lay a foundation for the rest of the season. Junior exists to ramp up the tension in the pilot, but he moves too fast too quickly, a victim of the acceleration Vaughan otherwise does a nice job of using to his advantage.

As with any and all series of this nature, the premise is only as good as how stable a foundation it offers for further narrative development: while maybe not anyone can drop a dome on a small town, it’s certainly a more inherently interesting exercise than the small town show Under The Dome will remain for the rest of the season. But I’d say that this is objectively a solid pilot, and I’m hoping that it—like Hannibal—is better for not having to have waited months to move onto its second episode.

Cultural Observations

  • I complained a lot in the buildup to the premiere that the show felt too “bright,” a weird critique that didn’t end up being a big deal in the finished product. I will say that the dome sequences did seem to take place at this sort of dull, overcast time of day, which I’m guessing was on some level intentional to make their effects job easier. I give them props for resisting having it take place at night, while also acknowledging the show got more visually interesting as it moved away from that greyness.
  • This was almost a Tumblr post to begin with before it spiraled out of control length-wise – I intend to stick with the series, and will probably drop some thoughts on the Tumblr as necessary.


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3 responses to “Series Premiere: Under The Dome – “Pilot”

  1. Linda

    I am appalled with the scene where the dome drops. Did they really need to split a beautiful animal, cow in half for effect. They could not find some other idea to exploit without graphically depicting the destruction of one of Gods creatures?

    Very bad scene!

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