Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Am I Over the Moon For CBS's Under the Dome?

I just finished Stephen King's novel, Under the Dome, last week after starting it ages ago.  I had many problems with finishing it -- my tablet stopped working, the book was 1078 pages long, and I was incredibly busy with school -- but overall, I found it to be a pretty good book with a not-so-great ending.  In the months leading up to the television adaptation premiering, there were some things that gave me hope (the choice of Brian K. Vaughan to be the showrunner, the producers stating that they wouldn't follow the book's ending) and others that made me worry (the fact that it was going to be on CBS, the mostly bland cast).  Ever since Lost's popularity, networks have been desperately searching for the next buzzworthy, mysterious sci-fi show, and they've all been some combination of terrible, unsuccessful, and derivative, so I didn't have high hopes for Under the Dome.

If there's one thing that I'm still divided on is the show's decision to not be a miniseries, as it was originally conceived.  On the positive side, this choice could allow for more expansive stories that get into some of the less developed cardboard characters.  On the other hand, the ongoing nature of the show could cause the story to drag on, especially given the limiting premise and thin time frame of the book.  Some might say that critics lobby the "how is this premise sustainable?" skepticism all the time, particularly with Lost, a show that also had its characters isolated in one location, but managed to consistently blow the doors off of its original concept.  However, the castaways on Lost weren't trapped in the same way that the citizens of Chester's Mill are, where the dome literally gives them no other choice than to stay in town, not only cut off from others, but also being unable to hear what's going on beyond it (a small, but major deviation from the book).  The book takes place over the course of about 8-10 days, which can't really be done on the show if they want to run for multiple seasons, and any longer time frame would have to deal with many logistical factors that come into consideration.

Luckily, the pilot moves along at a steady enough clip that you don't trouble yourself with thinking about these things for too long.  One of the biggest improvements that the show makes is its handle on the morality of the characters.  A major problem I had with the book was that everything was so morally black and white; the protagonists are all unvarnished do-gooders while the bad guys are so cartoonishly evil that's it was hard to find the battle between them fully engaging.  Thankfully, straight from the first scene we get some shades of gray, as we see Barbie, the show's leading man, mysteriously burying a body in the woods.  Big Jim Rennie, the town's used car salesman and Second Councilman, also gets a bit more coloring too, thanks in part to the writing and his portrayal by the great Dean Norris.  The budget on this one feels appropriately big as well, giving the scene of the invisible barrier coming down a real, visceral feeling.  The image of a cow split in half will certainly be the lingering image of the pilot, but the effects in the scenes of planes and trucks crashing into the dome are stirring as well.  Brian K. Vaughan is a talented writer, responsible for one of my favorite comics of all time in Y: the Last Man and some great episodes of Lost, and while he doesn't get to put much of his stamp on the episode, his small touches of pop culture references are great to hear again.

On the other hand, as much as it hurts me to say it, most of the rest of the dialogue is horrible.  Most pilots have the problem of being a bit too heavy on exposition and I'm sure this one has that same problem if you look hard enough, but you'll most likely be too distracted by just how generic all of it is.  Matching the limp dialogue are the characters who, aside from Barbie and Big Jim Rennie, don't pop very well.  It's much like CBS's short-lived Jericho, another genre show about a mysterious event that traps a small town and also featured stock characters that seemed like a random hodgepodge of "diverse" people that didn't really fit together.  It certainly doesn't help that most of the casting is as uninspired as I initially suspected.  Aside from the actors I have residual love for, like Dean Norris, Mike Vogel, and Britt Robertson; nobody else is really that impressive.  The most significant in this regard is Alexander Koch, who plays Junior Rennie, the blandly evil son of Big Jim.  Koch isn't a great actor and probably skews a bit young for the role, but the writing of Junior is poor too -- less violent than it is in the book, but somehow more manipulative.

Overall though, I thought the pilot was a solid piece of television.  Summer is usually the time where the film industry releases their big-event, popcorn movies and most television shows go on a break before returning in the fall.  Under the Dome, with its expensive look and high-concept premise, looks to be the inception of summer blockbuster television.  I don't watch any other CBS dramas -- I'm working on catching up on Person of Interest and I've come to terms with the fact that I'm never going to get around to The Good Wife -- so I look forward to seeing the progression of Under the Dome, which isn't without its problems but has enough spark for me to want to keep watching.

No comments:

Post a Comment