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It’s only one episode out of 13 and a whole lot of things can go sideways, but CBS’s summer series from Stephen King, Under the Dome, set the hook pretty deep.
Count me in.
If you haven’t heard about the much-buzzed-over limited series, it’s from King’s best-selling book of the same name (and premieres June 24 on CBS). One day the fictional town of Chester’s Mill is going about business as usual — except for the guy digging a grave and burying a body out in the woods. But the small rural town is just humming along when it’s engulfed by what turns out to be a gigantic dome.
Seemingly dropped from the sky in a random fashion, the dome cuts houses in half, downs power lines, crushes cars that can’t see it (duh – it’s invisible) and most effectively and gruesomely, cuts a cow completely in half.
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If you reach out and try to touch the invisible dome, your hand gets a slight shock (on the first time) – enough to warn you but not kill you. However, it’s really going to blow out that warranty on your pacemaker.
Developed for television by Brian K. Vaughan (Lost, Y: The Last Man) and executive produced by Neal Baer (ER) and Steven Spielberg, Under the Dome doesn’t waste much time setting up the premise and doesn’t try to spring it on you as a twist (which would be hard with that title). Director Niels Arden Oplev makes the most of the unexplained-phenomenon conceit by not only having a plane crash into the dome — from the inside — but also a milk truck from the outside, among a few other visual treats in the pilot.
Oplev also does a fine job of pacing at the outset, lulling the viewer into a sense of Chester’s Mill as a bucolic rural town (the show was shot in North Carolina), before things begin to get a little weirder and more sinister than just some guy digging a grave.
The guy is Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel) and once the dome comes down, he can’t get away from the crime he just committed. We meet the town sheriff (Jeff Fahey) and his deputy (Natalie Martinez), who don’t seem to work up too much of a sweat on the job, though they do seem to be hounded by the small-town newspaper editor, Julia (Rachelle Lefevre).
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Chester’s Mill is low on both extra police and firefighters because they all went off for a picnic event that fell outside of the dome. Councilman James “Big Jim” Rennie (Dean Norris) is left in charge — for the most part — and viewers are given glimpses of various other town inhabitants: Waitress at the diner, college dropout, random high school kids, workers at the local radio station — which is up and working inside the dome.
Early on the hardships seem obvious. Unless you’ve got a back-up generator, then you don’t have electricity. No radio signals can come in. Inhabitants can’t hear people yelling just on the other side of the dome, right in front of them. Slowly, some begin to wonder how long this could last (which brings up issues of food and water). The government is massing on the outskirts of the dome and they look dressed for a worst-case scenario.
Even though there’s a lot of carnage from the dome descending — you’ll see some severed body parts — most of the survivors are more stunned and confused than worried. It’s pretty clear the worry (and perhaps some panic and terror) will begin to kick in shortly, since King has a way in all of his books about getting to people’s hidden secrets and fears.
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Normally networks have a hard time selling summer shows because savvy viewers know all too well that they’re just burned-off series deemed not good enough to air in the regular season. But Under the Dome was always planned for summer and it’s essentially a miniseries.
CBS is on to something here. They went big with King and Spielberg, plus Vaughan and a large cast. I particularly like that CBS is making Under the Dome feel like an event you can get into without having to worry about whether it will return as a series or not. You’re getting 13 episodes and then it moves on. After ceding so much ground to cable through the years as it shut down in late May, the broadcast industry needed to rethink the future. This kind of limited series is a step in the right direction.
And it sure helps that the first hour is intriguing as hell and filled with a lot of storytelling promise. If viewers catch the pilot, they’ll be back for the next episode. Some critics, too.
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