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Missed opportunities "Under the Dome"

The summer TV series based on Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” only has a few episodes to go, but it’s already been renewed for a second season based on boffo ratings.  That’s too bad, because this really could have worked as a taut 10- or 13-episode miniseries.  A lot of filler is getting packed into this year’s last few episodes to drag things into a second season. 

How much filler, you ask?  How about a sinister character who appears out of nowhere, after going unmentioned for 80% of the series, and sets up an underground fight club where the series’ hero is forced to compete?  Oh, yes, they went there.

The premise of “Under the Dome” is simple, clever, and largely wasted by the series.  (I haven’t read the book, but I understand it’s quite a bit different.)  One day, an invisible force field descends over the small town of Chester’s Mill, trapping several hundred residents and visitors inside.  After making a few efforts to communicate (via sign language and written signs – the Dome is transparent but soundproof, and it tends to mess up radio waves) the government drops a bomb, which fails to even slightly damage the bizarre force field, so they pretty much give up and leave the town to rot.  Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then, the hallmark of “Under the Dome” is people doing things that don’t make sense.

Every episode of the TV series is divided into three general sections.  There are scenes where people try to cope with the fear, isolation, and supply shortages imposed by the Dome.  These are the most interesting parts of the show, but unfortunately also the least common scenes.  After a comically rushed series of crises – they had a deadly meningitis outbreak on Day Three or thereabouts – the writers largely lost interest in exploring the idea of a typical small American town dealing with the loss of the outside world.  The tragically short-lived series “Jericho” did this much better a few years back.

The second element of an “Under the Dome” episode is the Dome Mystery Stuff, in which a small group of characters tries to figure out what the Dome is, and how to communicate with it.  These parts were interesting (and genuinely creepy) in the early episodes, but they’re starting to stray into “Lost”-style “We’re Making This Up As We Go Along” nonsense.  Binding a small group of people together with a thread of mystic destiny is a standard Stephen King trope, but it’s just not done very well here.  The people mystically connected to the Dome aren’t interesting enough, and its efforts to communicate with them have lost their creepy edge.  It would be cool if the showrunners could get permission to have one of these characters pick up the word “ka” from the Dome, importing an idea of shared destiny from a much better King story about star-crossed companions.

And then you’ve got Ingredient Number Three, the dimwitted soap-opera crap.  “Under the Dome” is swimming in this stuff, with characters randomly developing tormented pasts, mysteriously falling in love or hate with each other, and doing things that don’t make a lick of sense.  This keeps the drama from taking flight, because it’s hard to care about people who don’t behave in understandable, relatable ways.  Even if you don’t like them, it’s important to feel that you understand where they’re coming from.  “Under the Dome” could stand to learn a few lessons from “Breaking Bad” in that regard.  

I hate to recommend use of a somewhat overplayed trope, but perhaps “Under the Dome” would benefit from some flashbacks to show us who these people were before the crisis began.  As things are going, the series’ calendar flips very quickly – each episode covers roughly one day of real time – so the intriguing notion of following the town through extreme hardship and despair is lost.  Some of the largely unseen townies’ actions are amusingly hysterical, given that only a few days have passed since the Dome appeared – they’re freaking out even faster than the notoriously high-strung residents of the animated Simpsons’ hometown did when they got stuck under a dome in their feature film.  Tantalizing hints of certain troubled characters rising to meet the challenge of an existential crisis have been wasted.  Characters like sinister town boss Big Jim Rennie were more interesting when the viewer was left to ask if they really did care about Chester’s Mill, despite their imperfections, and were motivated by a sincere desire to protect it.  

Stories of ordinary people surviving in extraordinary circumstances are all the rage now, as the astounding success of “The Walking Dead” testifies.  There was an interesting episode of “Under the Dome” where gun confiscation was debated, and some talk about the need for serious leadership to keep people going if the Dome turns out to be permanent.  The second season would benefit from a more sustained effort to imagine what a typical little town would really do under such extraordinary circumstances.  And please, no more fight club cliches.  

P.S. Since “Under the Dome” is doing really well, maybe this would be a good time to talk about bringing “Jericho” back…

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