Since beginning my Catching Up With King project after moving to Maine a few years back, I’ve become a fan of his writing style, stubbornly ragged as it is. At his best, he builds stories like monster trucks. They flatten all the inelegant dialogue and on-the-nose metaphors in its path. It can be incredibly fun to be behind that wheel. But it’s this very quality that makes it nearly impossible to adapt King’s work for TV or film. The natural inclination of a director is to trim the fat, streamline plot threads, give the action a proper cadence. So they strip the monster truck for parts. Usually, all they’re left with is the wreckage.
It would be an understatement to say that the CBS series Under the Dome has this problem. This is the story of the town of Chester’s Mill, which becomes sealed off from the world when a mysterious dome falls from the sky. It’s clear and permeable; impenetrable and soundproof; reminiscent of The Simpsons Movie and directly ripped off from The Simpsons Movie. Yet derivation is the least of Under the Dome‘s problems. I’ve never read the novel, but there’s just no way that it could be as sluggish, painfully unrealistic, and emotionally barren as this TV show. Unless the dome is a metaphor for writer’s block, and the thinning ranks of the townspeople represent weak thoughts fading from a suffocated brain, I cannot explain why it exists.
Showrunner Brian K. Vaughan is no slouch, having written the popular graphic novel series Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man. No matter. He fucked with the truck, and got crushed.
So, after watching a season and a half of Under the Dome, what have I learned?
1. Chester’s Mill is on Ritalin.
The dome comes down, and people seem rather chill about it. I mean, they basically don’t even try to get out. Various car wrecks show that you can’t drive a hole in it, but what about bullets? Or fire? Or acid? Or a pointy stick? Nope! They’re cool just hangin’. Take a look at the press photo of Mike Vogel, who plays our main character Dale “Barbie” Barbera:
So yeah, this is our main character at his most concerned. He looks like a constipated window washer.
2. Actually, maybe they’re on heroin too.
When the government is about to drop a massive bomb on the dome, the town hides in the basement of an old building, where the vibe is pretty laid-back – the local DJ plays a Beethoven sonata, and it’s fitting. A few episodes later, the scorched-earth destruction the bomb caused outside the dome just sorta disappears. The power of disinterested thinking?
When main characters are brutally murdered, people wince for a second and move on.
When people learn that Junior Rennie is a violent psychopath who locked his ex-girlfriend in a bomb shelter, they take it like it’s a fairly normal thing to hear about someone. This extends to the writers, who now seem to think that we can accept Junior as some kind of hero, which, NO. If Alexander Koch wasn’t the kind of actor who only can make one face, and that face wasn’t the face of a dazed pony, then the show would not be getting away with this socially irresponsible character arc.
3. Snow globes are a metaphor for thinking your audience is brain dead.
4. If you can’t decide who you are, then you’ve decided to be nothing at all.
For the first several episodes, Under the Dome wants to be a problem-of-the-week procedural. And it’s not the worst idea. We find out how the town responds to fire, drought, and an epidemic. People are still behaving like automatons, but at least there’s some structure.
But then Under the Dome decides it wants to be an allegory about men playing God. Dean Norris, who brought such deep, grizzled insecurity to his role as Hank on Breaking Bad, plays “Big Jim” Rennie, a local politician/car salesman whose hobbies are being powerful and making serious faces. The show tries to get us to hate Big Jim, who murders in cold blood to hold onto his meager power, and who starts acting like the town reverend at memorial services. It kind of achieves this goal, despite Norris’s performance being too broad and stare-y to really inspire us to feel much. The real issue is the flip side of this hashed-together allegory: The show needs us to root for the Wonder (Bread) Twins at the story’s center, Barbie (Vogel, who wears t-shirts) and Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, who has a hairstyle). Sure, it succeeds in getting us to hate Big Jim, but we already hated him. We hate every goddamn person for being so boring.
Then, Under the Dome wants to be a MacGuffin-heavy sci-fi mystery, complete with chosen-one narratives, screaming eggs, and amateur psychic paintings. This is where the show officially becomes nothing at all, a void, a blackness in our lives.
5. I love the severed cow. I blame the severed cow.
When the dome comes down in the pilot, it cuts a cow in half. The show handles it perfectly, using the bargain-basement CGI that fans of Stephen King miniseries know and love. I watched 187 minutes of It so I could see that stop-motion spider. I sat through all three hours of The Langoliers just so I could see those toothy clam screensavers descend on Balki. Under the Dome gave me my fix before the first commercial break. Like a drug dealer would.
6. I have spent 16 hours of my life watching this show. I feel you, Dean.