By: Eric Thomas
The TV show rumors surrounding Stephen King’s thousand plus page doorstopper, Under the Dome, have been around for a while. It was first proposed as a Showtime miniseries before it landed on CBS, where it’s airing Monday nights at 9PM as a full fledged thirteen-episode series. King’s best novels are the big ones—1978’s The Stand is considered by many as the best work of commercial fiction in the last century. Under the Dome was King’s best since the Stand. In the opinion of some (including yrs truly), it’s his best.
A word about adaptations. The funniest phrase going around is “Movies: Ruining the book since 1920.” It’s not fair to compare books and movies. Books are immersive experiences, where every person walks away with a different interpretation. The best movies and TV shows can do the same but for the most part, someone has done the interpreting for you. When reviewing Under the Dome, it’s hard to avoid comparisons to the book.
If you’re a fan of the book, let’s get this out of the way: The show isn’t as dark. How could it be? Literary types may grumble about network television, but the novel was too dark for premium cable and movies, too. The cellar? How were they really going to do that in any visual medium? The novel dealt with pure human depravity, the idea that people cut off from central authority give into their most base instincts. The TV show may get to that eventually, but for the moment it’s content to be an ably portrayed ensemble show. Going forward, we’re going to avoid comparisons to King’s novel and stick with what’s on the screen.
The show focuses on the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill, a community just outside Castle Rock and Tarker’s Mill, unaffected by the catastrophic lycanthropic or the demonic commerce that plagued those two communities. The show opens with used car salesperson turned council member “Big Jim” Rennie, in a diner reading a book on Churchill, local newspaper editor Julia Shumway on a boring beat, and a mysterious man named “Barbie” digging a shallow grave in the woods.
Barbie is speeding out of town when he gets in a car accident; he curses his luck in a farm when the dome comes down, cutting a nearby cow neatly down the middle. The dome is alive with some kind of energy, buzzing the hands of everyone who touches it, but invisible to the naked eye. The cow is only the first victim. Within minutes, speeding tractor trailers slam into the invisible wall, a plane explodes in the sky on impact and rains body parts on Barbie below. The police chief “Duke” Perkins, Julia Shumway and councilman Rennie all show up on the scene of the plane crash—and slowly the residents of Chester’s Mill realize they’re trapped.
Big Jim commandeers the local rock radio station to make a public safety message, warning drivers about the invisible dome. The hospitals fill up with accident victims and one woman whose arm was severed when the dome came down. Some of the younger residents drop to the ground in a seizure, chanting about pink stars falling.
Most of the residents of Chester’s Mill are understandably terrified, but Big Jim sees opportunity. He advises police Chief Perkins (Jeff Fahey, playing the same “grumpy-yet-affable-while-grimacing” character he’s been playing for the last ten years) to deputize certain local civilians. He’s rebuked, Perkins doesn’t want amateurs in a position of authority, in a scene where you get the impression that Big Jim isn’t comfortable with someone else making decisions.
Big Jim’s son, Junior, spends the morning bedding his casual girlfriend Angie, but she rejects him while she dresses for her job as a nurse at the hospital. She tells him the summer was fun, but Junior is heading back to school and she’d rather cut her losses with the relationship. He pleas for her to reconsider but she rejects him again, Junior loses his temper and grabs her. Angie wrestles free and slaps him before she hurries out of the house, concerned about his temper.
The younger Rennie is hurt by her change of heart and responds by stalking her from the driver’s seat of his large late-model truck. When Junior spots Barbie and Angie sharing a smoke outside the hospital, his jealousy sends him into a rage. He kidnaps Angie and seals her in his father’s fallout shelter, allowing before he leaves that he “knows more than most people” about what’s happening in Chester’s Mill. Leaving the sealed shelter, Junior is confronted by Big Jim and Junior offers his services to his father, available for help in any way the council member sees fit.
Barbie and Julia Shumway become fast friends and she invites him into her house. Once inside, Julia confides to Barbie that she feels like a fraud, a journalist who can’t see what’s under her nose. Barbie is understandably confused, so Julia admits that she’s aware that her husband is having an affair. She shows him a picture of her husband, and Barbie recognizes him as the man whom he buried in the woods right before the dome came down.
The show closes with police Chief Duke Perkins and his deputy standing at the dome, in a “what does this all mean / why Chester’s Mill” conversation when Duke reaches out to touch the Dome and the energy from the dome blows his pacemaker out of his chest. (Jeff Fahey seems to get all the doomed characters. His death scene reel might be ten minutes long)
The best way to adapt a popular novel is to throw it out, and Brian K Vaughn (of Lost and comic book fame) has definitely done that. He’s learned how to juggle a cast, keep an audience asking questions and move the story along with aplomb. Under the Dome’s pilot episode sets up a good cast of characters and could go any number of directions. Snooty fans of the book, with their noses held in the air, should just pull up a chair and relax. Isn’t it a good thing that the show is so different, because you don’t know what’s going to happen?
What did you think of the first episode? Open swim in the comment section below.