Under The Dome Series Premiere Review: “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Mike Vogel in Under the Dome

Small towns and TV go together like lobster and butter, rainy days and hot cocoa, broadcast networks and flashy genre pilots that fizzle out almost immediately. From the dusty roads of Mayberry, North Carolina, to the raccoon infested parks of Pawnee, Indiana, all the way down to the perfectly lit football fields of Dillon, Texas, rural America has provided the setting for some of TV’s all-time greatest programs. A big reason for that is because the medium forces shows to be insular out of financial necessity: sets are crazy expensive to construct, and so is shooting on location, so the success of many a series depends on how well it constructs the sandbox it’s going to be playing in. For CBS’s new miniseries, Under the Dome, that sandbox has plenty of entertaining toys, and maybe a couple cat turds, well within arm’s reach.

For the shows that manage to create a real sense of place, the most important tool they’ll have at their disposal will be that main character, the setting itself. The Simpsons didn’t really become The Simpsons until it started expanding and exploring Springfield, just as Twin Peaks wouldn’t have captured the attention of audiences were the titular town not populated by such a memorable bunch of oddballs, good guys, bad guys, and a Necronomicon’s worth of evil mojo hidden in the corners. And the real beauty of the small town setting is that it can work across most all tones and genres; the simple charms of Stars Hollow make it the sort of place you wish you could take a lazy vacation in, while the grimy frontier of Deadwood can at once horrify and dishearten you, but also inspire reflection on the nature of man, the importance of community, and how much cooler ol’ timey cursing was.

Despite the versatility, keeping things light has proven to be a more reliable means of creating a memorable pocket of TV America, while fewer attempts have been made to unearth the seedy side of country life (the best and darkest example in recent memory, Top of the Lake, is disqualified for being set in New Zealand). Once again, it’s perhaps an issue of medium; how many seasons can you keep digging into the underbelly of a tightly-knit community before the hamper of dirty laundry is down to lint, or the whole thing just becomes too dour to be enjoyable. Aided by the shorter experience length offered by a novel, Stephen King has practically filled out an entire state with all the unsettling settlements he’s conjured up, painting main streets like highways to hell, and the picturesque appearance of life outside the city as being a mask for something primal and menacing.

After losing its home on Showtime, the adaptation of King’s 2009 sci-fi-horror novel Under the Dome has finally begun its 13-episode run on CBS, and its premiere is an interesting mix of influences that show a great deal of promise. I’m told the story has been considerably reworked in adapting it for TV (having not read the book, I can’t confirm), but the basic premise remains the same: Chester’s Mill, an idyllic little bit of Rockwell-worthy farm country, is suddenly, and violently surrounded by a transparent barrier, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the outside world. Were this Pawnee, the event would be the jumping off point for some good-natured and off-the-wall silliness. But like a blood-splattered barn, Chester’s Mill looks the part of small town perfection, but even the slightest bit of closer inspection makes it clear that something ain’t right with the place.

Many of the show’s early elements are pure King, opening with ostensible lead Mike Vogel’s Barbie, a drifter passing through town who we first meet burying a body out in the woods. Barbie quickly runs afoul of Junior, a butterfly knife-twirling sociopath in the vein of many other King sociopaths, just one from an alternate universe where Andy Samberg isn’t only cutting holes in boxes. Those are almost certainly characters directly transplanted from the book, and tonally, Under the Dome doesn’t pull its punches with respect to its creator’s reputation. I would not have picked 2013 to be the year CBS would let something as disgusting and hilarious as a cow being cracked open like a mussel shell into a much-advertised premiere (poor Bessie having been perfectly bisected by the unknown force), but “Pilot” makes for a surprisingly bloody, and tense premiere.

Under the Dome’s biggest challenge, one relieved in part by the shorter season order, is that the show’s conceit makes for a creative straightjacket. The bubble covering the township lets nothing in or out, as demonstrated by numerous shots of animals, people, and vehicles colliding into the invisible wall, like this were a video game. That core conceit is what’s driving the initial drama, as residents are separated from loved ones on opposite sides of the barrier, and a growing military presence outside the containment zone only exacerbates the panicked feelings of those trapped within. Meanwhile, a concerning number of propane trucks have been spotted in town lately, almost as if someone was preparing for things to go sideways at any moment.

Oh, and some of the town’s younger residents are having seizures, babbling about star alignments when they get to close to the bubble. Already, there’s no lack of mysteries to be teased out over the remaining 12 hours.

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