Stephen King and boobtube fans alike can finally return to Chester’s Mill today, with the release of CBS’s Under the Dome on Blu-Ray. One of the biggest new shows of the year, Under the Dome is a 13-episode adaptation of the mammoth 1074 page Stephen King novel of the same name that was released back in 2009. Set in rural, Anytown USA, the series follows the lives of locals and strangers after the quiet little idyll of Chester’s Mill becomes a supernatural pressure cooker. Premiering to huge numbers in late June, the series made a name for itself thanks to its big sci-fi hook, and weak summer competition. But is the first season worth investigating if you’re safely removed from the show’s sphere of influence, or is this set just for those already under the dome’s spell?
Curiously, the box set doesn’t mention that it contains only the recently finished first season of the show, though it’s understandable why. After originally being shopped to cable network Showtime, Under the Dome found its way to CBS, where the “limited series” was eventually fast-tracked to a full 13-episode season order. Despite the speed at which the production came together, CBS had every right to be optimistic: the size of Under the Dome the novel was befitting of the popularity it had after release. King encouragingly gave his blessing to the show’s production, and was up front with fans unfamiliar with what the adaptation process entails: the book’s the book, the show’s the show, and neither had to be the other.
King adaptations have ranged from spectacular to laughable across multiple mediums, and Under the Dome entered the pantheon backed by A-list talent from many realms unrelated to television. Stephen Spielberg gets top producer billing on the show (even ahead of King), with his Amblin Television having taken on the task of production. In the writer’s room, celebrated comic book author Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) made the leap to showrunner after impressing with scripts he contributed to Lost. He wasn’t the only one who got off that island, as series-best director Jack Bender joined Dome as an executive producer, and was responsible for crafting the look of the series alongside Girl with the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev, who shot the pilot.
The embarrassment of riches working behind the scenes on Under the Dome stood in stark contrast to the theme of the show itself: “what would you do?” Or, to be more specific, “what would you do if your hometown was one day covered by a transparent, impenetrable dome that’s cutting you off from the luxuries and necessities of the outside world?” That’s terrifying enough a predicament for your average person to picture themselves in, but your average hometown wasn’t one Stephen King came up with. Resources like food, fuel and loyalty get exponentially more difficult and dangerous to manage when those vying to control them include a corrupt city councilman, his psychotic son, and an ex-military drifter with local blood on his hands, to name but a few of Chester’s Mills’ more intriguing residents.
Even if wider audiences didn’t care about the backstage talent involved, it was a near-foregone conclusion Under the Dome would premiere to the strong numbers it did. The pilot was one of the best of the summer season, explosively jumping right into its eye-catching premise immediately, before efficiently setting up a wide cast of characters over the course of the first hour. Broadcast shows with densely webbed mythologies and mysteries around every corner were a dime a dozen in the years since Lost left the airwaves, but with rare exception, none managed to convert general intrigue into an actual series. On paper, Under the Dome had everything it needed to be one of those exceptions: well-respected source material, an experienced cast, and some of the best guiding hands any show could hope for. Like the denizens of Chester’s Mill, most were optimistic about the future of Under the Dome in the aftermath of the big bubble dropping down.
Then the rest of the season happened, and were it not for the still solid pilot that leads off the box set, it’d be hard to recall there ever being evidence for thinking this show was going anywhere. The central premise is a straight up nightmare scenario for most TV writers: how do you keep a show fresh and interesting when, within 10 minutes of starting it, you’ve established a creative quarantine? The impermeability of the dome meant that no new characters or objects could pass through, let alone food or supplies. Because it covers only a 10-mile wide area, every person of importance and location contained within the dome would need to be established early, lest they awkwardly and suddenly appear out of the clear blue sky.
It was a challenge Under the Dome rarely handled gracefully. Characters and landmarks of import would popup when needed throughout the season, with little explanation of their previous whereabouts, despite having never been seen or mentioned beforehand. Of course, it was rare to actually see anyone in Chester’s Mill outside of the main cast, or go anywhere beyond the handful of sets and environments in which the story would take place. Any given episode would give you reason to believe the dome accidentally chose to plunk itself down over a ghost town, with streets virtually empty at all hours. As a result, often times the fake dome on the show looked more real than the real town it was being shot in. Few and far between crowd scenes would properly evoke the expected size of such a town, with riots and town meetings being perhaps the only reason residents of Chester’s Mill ever felt the need to leave home.
Establishing a sense of urgency to the proceedings became a long-standing issue throughout the season, as the slowdrip of answers to dome-related questions meant that band-aid plots had to be contrived most every week. It’s a full six episodes in before the issue of water management starts to press on the citizens, with holdover inconveniences like a meningitis outbreak, or a fire caused by someone destroying a single piece of paper in the dumbest way possible, filling time. Even when the show would back characters into a corner with one of these incidental crises, the supernatural nature of the dome meant that no solution to the problem was off the table, with “the dome did it” becoming the narrative mantra of characters explaining many a plot twist and turn.
Longterm plotting proved equally problematic, with non-supernatural arcs including the kidnapping and imprisonment of a young woman in a bomb shelter, a local drug-production conspiracy, and the search for a local reporter’s missing husband. Little of consequence came of any of these stories, which were stalling tactics to fill up the surrounding 80% of each episode not dedicated to exploring the mysteries of the dome. That exploration inevitably led to more questions than answers, as the writers played things so close to the vest with regards to the dome’s origins and abilities, that for characters to follow the breadcrumb trail of evidence presented to them from A to B usually required mindboggling leaps of logic.
Disposability quickly became a uniting trait for the cast, as nary an episode would pass without at least one named character being shot, bludgeoned, or drowned to death. This would make for exciting and tense stuff were depth and charisma not two of the imports Chester’s Mill must have been expecting to arrive the day after the dome dropped. Save for some Herculean efforts by Dean Norris as the conniving Jim Rennie, none of the core cast could transmute the wooden dialogue of their thinly sketched personas into something other than the first note or beat that defined their general archetype. A handful of guest stars, including Lost’s Jim Fahey, and Justified’s Natalie Zea, filter in and out over the course of the season, adding a little color to the lives of the bland principle characters, before heading off to other, better gigs.
Perhaps the saddest inclusion of the whole box set is the selection of special features, a moderately respectable assortment of extras that demonstrate how much more interesting learning about the show’s production is than finding out anything new about the fiction. Commentary lovers will be sorely disappointed, as no one from the cast, production, or writing had time and/or could be bothered to record a few words before the home release. A short featurette detailing the creation of the show and the filming of the pilot is the only extra of note across the first three discs, which are nothing but deleted scenes and promo ads otherwise.
On the final disc is the bulk of the goodies, though all told, the extras clock in at about 3 hours’ worth of content. Running around fifteen minutes each, four mini-docs cover various aspects of the show from a backstage perspective. “Stephen King and Under the Dome” pays tribute to the author in interviews with the cast and the man himself, who despised Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, but appears perfectly content with what’s become of his most recent hit. “Under the Dome: From Novel to Series,” and “The World of Under the Dome” go into Brian K. Vaughan’s approach to penning the series and highlight some of the locations used for the show, respectively, while the 30-minute “Under the Dome: The First Season” tracks favorite moments from the cast throughout the first year of production.
Each of the featurettes loosely covers the title subject, but one wonders if a single, larger edit couldn’t have been cut together to save menu clicks. Regardless, the peeks behind the scenes are sometimes informative (the secrets of the pilot’s impressive visuals are showcased in detail), sometimes inconsequential (those wondering about the 5-7 minute process of applying fake tattoos are in for a treat), but are always well natured. A gag reel highlights the overwhelming amiability of those working on the show when the cameras aren’t actually rolling, making it sting that much more to know that little of that warmth and excitement made it into the finished product. Whether it’s the cast, crew, or creative talent, it’s never fun having to watch well-meaning people, often talented people putting in so much effort, and knowing all they’ll come up with is a big handful of nothing.
The final special feature is perhaps the greatest addition made to a piece of filmed content since that Will Smith music video was included at the end of the Wild Wild West VHS. “Joe’s Blog” is a multipart text and video series of e-diaries produced by the character Joe McAlister (Colin Ford) over the course of the first season. A self-described “goober,” and member of the “nerd herd,” Joe’s writings are a thing of extratextual brilliance, tracking his thought process and reactions to the events of the first season as they happen. How and why does he keep a blog running during, despite the lack of Internet in Chester’s Mill? Not even Joe seems to know, which makes the constantly changing track of his mind all the more fascinating. As it turns out, the best version of the show might have been the one Joe McAlister was creating for himself in his head the whole time.
The high quality of the audio and video transfer on the Blu-Ray discs and a few neat special features are about the only things to be found in the Under the Dome box set that can seen as approaching anything above the lowbar the series sets for itself. This is the kind of show that believes dolling out gotcha surprises and mysteries at a measured pace will further invest the viewer in its world and characters, but the whole of the experience plays like a 13-hour endurance test. There’s a certain kind of viewer that will permanently plant their flag in this sort of show, no matter how far it strings them along, and they’ll be the only ones interested in ever revisiting Under the Dome after an initial viewing. The volume of great TV out there that does what Under the Dome attempts, but with better characters, better writing, better production values, better stories –better EVERYTHING- makes this box set only recommendable to the most die hard of dome-heads.
A few revealing and amiable special features do little to save the Blu-Ray set of Under the Dome from the dismayingly poor show contained within.