written by Brian K. Vaughan (based on the novel by Stephen King) | directed by Niels Arden Oplev
There are two Stephen King's occupying my mind-space: the justly renowned author of horror classics Carrie, 'Salem's Lot and The Shining; and the originator of corny screen adaptations like The Tommyknockers, The Night Flier and Dreamcatcher. There are notable exceptions to the tendency for King adaptations to be useless or forgettable, of course: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is my favourite movie (although King hated it), Misery and Carrie were terrific, Pet Sematary's pretty good, the It miniseries contains the scariest villain ever, Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption's a masterpiece, and the same director's The Green Mile was also rather good. I even enjoyed The Mist. King has a chequered history with film and television, let's put it that way, but I was still optimistic when I heard his 2009 novel Under the Dome was being turned into a CBS TV series.
Most of the best King adaptations work because they have a story that springs from a strong, fascinating, indelible idea. Under the Dome definitely falls that descriptor, with its tale of a parochial community becoming isolated from the rest of the world when a dome-shaped invisible barrier slams into the town's perimeter: slicing a cow in half Damien Hirst-style, light aircraft to crash, and trucks to smash into this mysterious force field. You may recall the same idea as the basis of The Simpsons Movie, but King definitely had the idea first because Under the Dome began life as an abandoned novel he started in the 1970s called The Cannibals.
The pedigree of the TV series is also notable, and mostly encouraging. Comic-book virtuoso Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) has developed the novel for the small-screen, although Neal Baer (Law & Order: SVU) is the actual showrunner, and this pilot was directed by Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplex (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), with future instalments coming from Jack Bender (an alumnus of Lost, which Vaughan also worked on). It stars a variety of actors you'd broadly describe as "sure hands", with a few stand-out turns from Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Jeff Fahey (finally forgiven for his starring role in King adaptation turd The Lawnmower Man?) The likes of Mike Vogel (Bates Motel), Rachelle Lefevre (Twilight: New Moon) and Britt Robertson (The Secret Circle) help round out the cast, with their resumes giving you a feel for the overall quality of Under the Dome.
It sounds like I'm about to pour bile on this pilot, I know, but I just found it too safe and unsurprising. It moved at a sprightly pace (the dome itself appearing after 10-minutes) and introduced a lot of townsfolk well, while finding time to plant the seeds of smaller 'inside the dome' mysteries: what was mysterious Army veteran Mike "Barbie" Barbara (Vogel) doing before he was prevented from leaving town by the dome? Why has the Chester's Mill been stockpiling propane gas in the weeks before the dome appeared? Why does Police Chief Perkins' (Fahey) pacemaker react so badly to the dome? And why is everyone's radio tuned to the local radio station? (Okay that last one wasn't presented as a mystery, but it still made me raise an eyebrow.)
Ultimately, there was nothing flat-out terrible about this premiere. I just found that too many things prevented me viewing it as a genuinely good hour of drama. The dialogue was weak, and there are already some actors you wish they'd have cast better—like Alexander Koch as Junior Rennie, the crazy son of politician James "Big Jim" Rennie (Norris), who reacted to the dome's presence by immediately locking a girl in his dad's unused fallout shelter.
Under the Dome will be doubtless explore the strains of a close-knit community having to deal with isolation and the many problems of a giant dome sitting over your town. What happens when the food runs out? Is the water still running? Can they dig under the dome to escape? How will they maintain peace and order under this kind of social pressure? That all sounds fairly interesting to me, but I'd be more excited about Under the Dome if it was guaranteed the story will resolve after these 10 episodes. Instead, while this is billed as a "summer event" miniseries by CBS, the intention is to make more seasons if it's popular, and I just don't see how this concept can sustain that. They've already used the pilot to crash a small plane and concertina a truck, so there's very little about the actual dome that interests me now... and I'm not sure the characters are strong enough to keep me watching by themselves.
Can the core mystery hook audiences for more than one season? I'm not convinced, as a gut feeling, although I'm relieved to hear that the writers have already confirmed Stephen King's conclusion to the book will be avoided; because, like so many of King's novels, it was apparently a massive let-down.