Under the dome, now on Blu-ray, goes under the bus
By Jim Bray
Take a really neat concept, bog it down with soap opera-like subplots and characters, and what do you get?
In the case of "Under the Dome," the TV series adaptation of Stephen King's novel, you get an excruciatingly frustrating 13 hours (less the broadcast commercial and promo time) in the home theater.
It's a shame. The concept is fascinating, but the execution is ham-handed, spending far too little time on the dome and what makes it tick (and what can be done about it) and far too much time gazing into the navels of the characters. Add in a bunch of stereotypes and liberal political points that bludgeon the audience with typical subtlety and you have a failed attempt at what should have been a ripping yarn.
Then, to make things worse, the story isn't settled by the time you hit the last episode, which made me feel more than a tad ripped off after having sat through the rest of the stuff. Apparently, the show will be back with a new season, undoubtedly to maximize viewer frustration with a story that should have been wrapped up by now.
The story itself revolves around Chester's Mill, your typical "small town America," whose residents discover suddenly that a transparent dome has been cast over the place, cutting them off from the outside world completely. Not even sound can pass through, which makes communicating with the outside world nearly impossible (what a shame that few people use semaphore these days!). Fortunately, light passes through - at least at the beginning of the series, and we discover more limitations as the story unfolds.
Where'd the dome come from? Who or what erected it? What can be done about it? These questions are on top of our minds as the series unfolds, and there are some people concerned with the answers, but not nearly enough.
The show opens well. We see Chester's Mill as a kind of idyllic small town, the type of which we've seen hundreds of times before - and that's just in Stephen King stories! The appearance of the dome is really quite neat; there's a kind of seismic oomph and all of a sudden there's a ring in the ground around the town - but not perfectly around the town because it bisects buildings and, in a shot we see over and over again as the show opens, even livestock. A light aircraft slams into the invisible barrier, raining pieces of plane and occupants onto the horrified witnesses below. A big truck smashes into it, flattening its nose and undoubtedly that of its driver in the process. Cool stuff.
Cut off from the world, the town turns into a microcosm of Hollywood and leftist clichés, through characters and situations and stereotypes. The religious character is a corrupt crazy guy. The capitalist, a used car salesman and town councilor who uses the dome to try becoming a little tin dictator, is a nasty piece of work.
His kid is a certifiable wacko who kidnaps his "girlfriend" and locks her up in his dad's old Obamacare - er, fallout shelter. It turns out both these folk and a couple of other young people, are really important to the dome storyline. Maybe we'll get all the answers next season (though I, for one, won't be watching).
Also on hand is the journalist who lives in tiny Chester's Mill because she screwed up her career (why else would a journalist live in a small town, right?). She thinks her husband is outside the dome but we know he's dead at the hands of a former military guy who turns out to be quite a hero, his past notwithstanding.
Oh yeah, there's also an interracial lesbian couple who have a teenage daughter and aren't afraid to get in the face of anyone who doesn't bow to the Agenda. And a DJ reminiscent of the guy in Northern Exposure (but not written as well) and a radio engineer who's a bloody genius and isn't it handy she's in this tiny little town?
In all, other than the dome stuff, it's quite predictable and ends up being pretty tiresome.
Now, I haven't read the book, so don't know how faithful the series is. I've read a couple of reviews that say it isn't particularly faithful, however, and which claim this series is a clumsy telling of what they consider a great book. It doesn't really matter. While faithful is always better, a compelling screenplay is most important. Heck, Robert Zemeckis made a better film of "Contact" than Carl Sagan's already compelling book, and Kubrick did the same with Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange." You probably have your own examples of movies/videos/TV series that were better than the print story on which they were based.
So the real problem is that the story is dumbed down and cliché when it should have been gripping and exciting, even if the story is more about the enemy within than the dome.
You know you're in trouble during the opening credits, when the voice over outlines the town and the dome situation briefly, then informs us that none of the residents' secrets are safe. Peyton Place, anyone?
The actors are fine, however; ditto for the production values.
Paramount has released the season in a nice boxed set that stretches the episodes and the extras over four discs. Audio (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) and the 1080p video is very good, nice and clean and realistic. The picture is sharp and crisp and colorful, and the special effects look neat. The soundtrack can be quite enveloping at times, using all the audio channels well.
There's a decent selection of extras if you must find out more about this outing. Disc One features the pretty good "Under the Dome: Filming the pilot" as well as launch promos. Discs Two and three have deleted scenes, while Disc Four gets quite a generous selection in comparison. There's a deleted scene, followed by King himself opining about the project(s). There are also a few featurettes about the production, the adaptation, etc. and you also get something called "Joe's Blog" (from one of the characters) and a gag reel.
Under the dome, alas, is very "under the whelming." There's a good story trying to find its way out here, but it's never allowed to be anything but ponderously formulaic. Tempts me to give the book a look.
Maybe that was King's intent…
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.