Summer isn’t the most rewarding time for television viewing. Denuded of regular primetime series, the networks are forced to feed us a diet of reruns, hastily imagined reality shows, sub-par Canadian dramas and concert specials. Surprising then that CBS has chosen the hotter months of the year in which to debut a limited-run series based on Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome. It may not be a perfect show, but it’s damn welcome in a season filled with “Hillbillies For Hire,” “Airplane Repo” and “Catering Wars.” (No, really. See “Week in Sloth” for confirmation.)
“Under the Dome” takes us to the tiny town of Chester’s Mill. Shortly after being introduced to some of the town’s residents, we learn that Chester’s Mill is under a most unusual form of segregation. Out of nowhere an impenetrable, invisible dome drops down over the entire town, cutting it off from the rest of civilization. Yes, this is pretty much the plot of The Simpsons Movie—although, King claims he wrote the idea long before that 2007 hit came out. Of course that only means both stole the idea from Arch Oboler’s weirdo 1966 sci-fi film The Bubble.
Created by King and executive produced by Brian K. Vaughan (story editor on “Lost” and writer of the awesome comic book series Y: The Last Man), “Under the Dome” is a fine jumping off point for all sorts of paranoid scenarios, social commentaries and sci-fi musings. Each of our many characters has plenty of room to grow. Dale Barbara (Mike Vogel) is a mysterious military vet who killed someone and buried the body in the woods mere moments before the dome appeared. Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre) is a crusading investigative journalist who’s taken an interest in both the dome and Barbara. Angie McAlister (Britt Robertson) is a candy striper with dreams of escaping town. Carolyn Hill (Aisha Hinds) is a Los Angeles entertainment attorney trapped in town with her unruly adoptive daughter and her homosexual life partner (Samantha Mathis). Big Jim Rennie (Dean Norris) is the town’s chief politician and used car salesman. Junior Rennie (Alexander Koch) is Big Jim’s nutty son. Joe McAlister (Colin Ford) is a smart teenager whose parents are trapped outside the dome.
Each of these people has a story to tell. The premise of “Under the Dome” relies entirely on character. If they’re interesting enough, we’ll be in it for the long run. (See for reference: “Lost.”) So far, there’s enough intrigue to keep things going. Dale is mysterious enough to make us wonder what his deal is. Joe is our everyman hero, and his predicament of trying to keep his family safe minus parents makes for a good emotional center. Although it’s undoubtedly the most exciting subplot, the fact that Junior Rennie went instantly wacko and kidnapped Joe’s sister, stashing her away, Misery-syle, in a hidden fallout shelter feels like King at his horror show laziest. Still if the show’s premise (the breakdown of society when left to its own devices) comes to fruition, Junior’s psycho behavior might not seem too far out of place.
CBS has been coy about how “limited” this series really is. If it does well this summer, they’ll make another season. If it bombs, they’ll wrap it up quickly. Sprawling, melodramatic and teasingly unresolved, “Under the Dome” has the potential to be the best Stephen King series ever. Or a sad repeat of King’s hastily wrapped up 1991 series “Golden Years.”