Under the Dome: Review: Season 1 Ep 1 (Pilot)

under-the-dome-logoDirected by Niels Arden Oplev

Starring Mike Vogel, Rachelle Lefevre, Dean Norris, Natalie Martinez, Britt Robertson, Alex Koch, Colin Ford, Nicholas Strong, Jolene Purdy, Aisha Hinds

Aired 24 June 2013

On the surface, Chester’s Mill is a typical American small town, but what if one were to put the town under a microscope and see what’s really going on under the surface? Or more accurately, what if one were to put the town under a transparent dome and see what happens when the townsfolk are completely cut off from outside reality?  Without power, and with medicine and food supplies dwindling, how quickly will the façade of society begin to crumble? Welcome to the microcosm world of Under The Dome.

The main cast scrambling around in television’s new ant farm includes: a mysterious soldier nicknamed “Barbie” first seen burying a dead body (Mike Vogel); a windblown newspaper writer named Julia determined to expose town secrets at any cost (Rachelle Lefevre), even if one of them involves her now-missing husband; a town councilman and car salesman named “Big Jim” with delusions of grandeur, who is keeping some of those secrets (Dean Norris); his son Junior (Alex Koch), who seems sweet at first but who ultimately may be crazier than a bag full of wet cats, especially when it comes to his girlfriend Angie (Britt Robertson), a comely candy-striper nurse who flirts a bit too much for her own safety to be assured; a lesbian couple and their daughter (Aisha Hinds, Alice Calvert, and Mackenzie Lintz); the feisty female Deputy Linda (Natalie Martinez) cut off from her firefighter fiancé who is outside the dome. Jeff Fahey appears as Sheriff Duke in the pilot, but given the circumstances — and the fact that he’s listed as “recurring” rather than as a series regular — he might not make it for long.

Under The Dome is adapted from a mammoth 2009 novel by Stephen King, the man who is probably America’s most popular storyteller ,and who can claim the title of the most film and television adaptations from his projects than any other 21st-Century author. The sprawling storyline, which actually takes place over a brief time in the book, would have been ill-served by the initial plans to turn it into a feature film. The maxi-series 13-episode commitment that CBS is making (inheriting the project from sister company Showtime) will allow for the stories and characters to be much more fairly balanced. King’s long projects have always worked best in multi-episode arcs — The Stand, It, Storm of the Century, Salem’s Lot and one could even make a case for his remake of The Shining (at least in hewing closer to his vision) and the never-completed Golden Years — were all strengthened by allowing the characters and situations to breathe and grow in ways that the drastic editing of film time doesn’t.

Niels Arden Oplev, who previously helmed the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, does a credible job in the pilot episode, allowing some eerie set pieces to drag on just long enough to show dread peeking around the corner, and letting the mostly excellent cast establish the characters they’re hired to portray (only the “villains,” Koch and Norris, come off too over-the-top). By silencing anything outside the dome (and showing only fractions of the outside world to those inside the clear enclosure), the pilot offers both fear and an unnerving calm. And though a mid-air plane crash featured subpar special effects, a grocery truck crash into the dome is rendered mostly well (if bloodlessly), while another scene where a cow is sliced in half by the done from head to tail is spectacularly gruesome.

Comic scribe Brian K. Vaughan is the Under The Dome pilot’s writer and showrunner, and his work in comics, and on the continuity-heavy Lost serves him well here. He veers away from King’s text in many spots, adding characters or tweaking elements for others in reasonable ways… at least in what we can tell in the pilot (further textual changes, including a vastly different ending are promised). His inclusion of multiple female characters, including a too-rare-for-TV lesbian couple, allows him to easily pass the Bechdel Test, and the rest of his cast is both dynamic and diverse.

It’s hard to judge how successful Under The Dome will be as a whole, when what viewers see in the pilot is solely the introductory chapter to a longer serial, but the production team has seemingly taken cues from not just the novel, but also from successful short-run sequential series such as Dexter, Southland, and the recent Hannibal. With a gripping storyline, strong actors and characters, and an ace production team, this self-contained story should be worth viewer commitment.

VERDICT: Speculative fiction can instil strong feelings when a viewer is forced to ask themselves “What would I do in this situation?” Without devolving into post-holocaust or post-zombie invasion scenarios, Under The Dome is — so far — a gripping look at how a small portion of society evolves and adapts as they are cut off from the world around them. Lacking an immediately obvious supernatural element, or much bloodshed, this latest adaptation of a Stephen King novel earns its suspense thanks to strong production, an excellent cast, and a crystal-clear premise.  8/10

Andy Mangels

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