Review: UNDER THE DOME, Season 1

Ugh.

What does it mean?

-Everyone

At some point, someone at CBS noticed the improbably-high ratings Under the Dome was getting, and made the decision to stretch out what was originally a “miniseries event” into an annual series of indeterminate length. I think it’s safe to say that was one of a handful of terrible decisions made when producing this show.

All I can do is shake my head, because the potential here was huge. Showtime passed on it (man, that could have been cool), but the principal elements remain: You take a pretty great Stephen King novel, bring in Brian K. Vaughan and a few of his buddies from LOST to adapt it for television (while keeping King around in an advisory role), add a few….er, okay, add ONE great actor (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad, long live Hank), and you’ve got a hit. Well, CBS does have themselves a hit, but it’s not because the series is good — because it’s not.

There’s not even any point in discussing the hundreds of differences between the show and the book, because it pretty much stopped being a straight adaptation the second it began. Entire character backgrounds and motivations were changed, and many (admittedly dark for CBS) plotlines were dropped in favor of stuff that, I guess, was supposed to be easier to follow for the masses. So instead of a thematically rich story about an entire town slowly tearing itself to pieces amidst a supernatural event, we have about ten characters of varying intelligence (mostly low) making selfish and short-term decisions because that’s what you have to do with a network show like this — drag things out beyond all reason or logic.

Let’s break this thing down. Dale “Barbie” Barbara (a bored Mike Vogel) is no longer an obvious white-hatted hero, because everybody loves moral murk these days, right? His big thing now is that he’s a bounty hunter of some kind, who killed the husband of “ace” reporter Julia (Rachel Lefevre, whose red hair is her sole defining characteristic), and blah blah Dome happens cow cut in half immediate making of enemies etc etc. Julia ultimately does discover Barbie’s secret — after they’ve gotten romantically involved, of course — but it’s quickly swept under the rug like even the show was tired of it by that point.

Speaking of enemies, I DID appreciate the character of city councilman/used car salesman Big Jim Rennie being more nuanced and not obviously evil, but I attribute that more to Dean Norris’s performance than the writing. Meanwhile, his son Junior (Alexander Koch, the poor man’s Andy Samberg) is a psychopath from the word go, chaining his girlfriend Angie (Britt Robertson, the upcoming Tomorrowland) in his storm shelter for some inexplicable reason and generally being a creepy weirdo. And somehow, about halfway through the season the show attempts to walk this back, retconning something about her being “sick”, and she can somehow tolerate him for this and UGH. If Junior was supposed to be anything other than imminently punchable, the show painted him too broad too early, and nothing that happens to him later earns him the slightest sympathy despite Dome’s half-hearted efforts.

Come to think of it, the entire town (though funnily enough, only a couple dozen are in any place at once — that’s network budget for you) is just full of thinly-drawn and obnoxious characters. Deejays Phil & Dodee seem like they’ll be interesting, but they aren’t. Most of the others we only barely get to know. Importantly, the newly-named Sheriff Linda is probably the worst cop on any show this year, failing to: 1) properly collect evidence or make logical decisions, 2) recognize Big Jim as slimy despite it being BLATANTLY OBVIOUS by the end of the season, 3) refrain from saying dumb and obvious things like “he’s driving AWAY from the clinic!” as though there was an alternative, and 4) being generally awful and wrong all the time.

Even with Officer of the Year Linda around, no character epitomized the lazy writing of this show like the late-introduced Max (Natalie Zea) who apparently had just been hiding out this whole time, I guess? Inside the dome? (LOST fans are having some ugly “Nikki & Paulo” flashbacks right now.) I mean, none of these people seemed to really care about running out of food or water or how long they might be trapped — the show was more interested in “manufactured drama of the week,” like SOMETHING’S ON FIRE, or, AHHH THERE’S AN OUTBREAK — so I suppose it stands to reason that no one would notice her, but it reeked of desperation on the writers’ part to inject some kind of new conflict. Clearly, her job was to simply be obnoxious and spout some of the worst dialogue imaginable. Whether calling male characters “ladies” (it’s funny, get it?) or extolling the virtues of vice (uh, yeah, not going near the “secret Fight Club/speakeasy” plot) her character was awful and deserved the bullet in the head she got after a measly three episodes of highjacking the story.

Somehow, the best characters on this show were the teenagers, led by the the moderately competent Joe (Colin Ford), who finds a mini-dome in the woods that is powering the dome or something? And the DomeKidz (of which, OF COURSE Junior has to be one) have some kind of secret power over it, first marked by having seizures and mumbling something about “pink stars falling in lines,” which ties in directly to a terrible painting Junior’s mom did before she died, and some stupid mystery about a “monarch being crowned” but nobody cares and on and on? Well, at the end of the season we’re no closer to understanding all that, but at least the pattern of “uh, last five minutes of the episode, LET’S CUT TO THE MINIDOME AND SHOW SOMETHING COOL” had a cheap visceral thrill.

Ultimately, Barbie is framed by Big Jim for the murder of a few people (based on nothing but Big Jim’s word, because ALLEGORY), sentenced to death (on the quickest-assembled gallows of all time; did they get that at Ikea?), and of course the townsfolk go along with it as townsfolk tend to do. But then yet another crazy dome thing happens, and we’re past the point of caring, ending the season on a thoroughly unsatisfying beat: our theoretical good guys have yet to win or lose, and we still don’t know what the heck is going on. Is it aliens? Is it the military? Are they in purgatory? (It’s aliens.)

“Find out next year,” CBS says, but I’ll pass. I did my due diligence by finishing this season out; I felt I owed Vaughan and King that much. The now-season finale would have had to really be great for me to stick around, but the show is too deeply flawed, too stupid to justify it. Not even enjoyably stupid, just regular, boring stupid.

Ugh.

GRADE: D

 

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