Under the Dome
Episode 1: Pilot
By: Carlos Uribe
Under the Dome is a series about a small town that is trapped under a literal dome. I will be covering this show weekly.
It is very rare for a broadcast network to try to actually launch a scripted show in the middle of the summer. They might premiere new shows but they tend to have minimal marketing as the network doesn't actually believe in the show or it's a cheap import. What I'm talking about is a full-fledged marketing campaign and actual attempt to compete with cable for high ratings. The networks have been slowly moving towards more scripted summer programming so it makes sense that one of them would finally try to truly launch one. It makes perfect sense that it's the most successful one, the one with the most money, the Tiffany network. It makes sense that it's going to be an “event” kind of series, where something impossible happens to a group of people. While some science fiction shows can only attain cult status, an “event” series is supposed to get Lost level ratings and penetrate the mainstream. It's the big science fiction shows that get a lot of support from the network and whose premise can easily be explained in one sentence. Lost: A group of people get stranded on an island and weird shit starts to happen. Heroes: People mutate to get special abilities. FlashForward: People see themselves in the future. The Event: Something big is going to happen. These “event” series are marketed as something you can't miss every week because there's new information always being revealed. It's meant to encourage consistent viewing by being appointment television. It's more than that: it's meant to become something people obsess about online so that it builds hype and so it can make money from merchandising. These are big shows and viewers love to check them. It's hard to make them stick around because you need a smart plot, good characters, and strong relationships to ground the series. It makes sense that Under the Dome is not only an “event” series but also one that's based on a Stephen King book. It means it has a built-in fanbase to help build up the word of mouth and that will tune in to the show. The ratings for this episode of Under the Dome were solid-if it keeps them up then this will be a legitimate hit. The question is does Under the Dome deserve to be a hit or to be remembered as yet another flop in the “event” sub-genre?
A large problem with Under the Dome is that it doesn't feel like a pilot. It feels like an episode that airs in the middle of the season. This is an odd criticism and I'm sure some people will wonder why that's a bad thing. A pilot is meant to start things up. We're dropping into this show's universe, meeting the characters, and the pilot is setting up plotlines. It can often feel very exposition-heavy for this reason but it's needed so that the viewer can know what's going on and the series can launch the narrative as efficiently as possible. What this episode feels like is that those narratives were underway half-way through the season already. This leaves very little time or room for them to actually be introduced. It feels rushed and it's hard to care about them for this reason. It comes at the cost of character development because we don't get to know these characters before they start acting. It came at the cost of setting up the show's universe because we didn't spend as much time with the dome as I would have liked. It felt, at times, more like a background obstacle rather than the most important thing in the town right now. At other times, it was the most important thing. Under the Dome ultimately felt rushed. It was too busy as it had to juggle a lot of things and thus it didn't do a single thing right. The premise of Under the Dome was cool and I was looking forward to this show. I left not really caring a lot about any of the characters or their plots. It didn't hook me because I was too busy trying to orient myself to the show's universe. It would have been a lot more beneficial if the pilot had slowed down and taken it's time.
It always red flags on me when I don't really feel like I know who any of the characters are after watching the pilot. I don't mean that their undeveloped but there are some I don't even know who their archetype is supposed to be. The main male “protagonist” of Under the Dome appears to be Barbie. He's a veteran who appears to work as a debt collector for the mafia or something. I'm not entirely sure. He begins the episode disposing of the body before being trapped inside the dome of the small town. He largely spends the rest of the episode reacting to it as he tries to figure out what it is and help the people he comes across. He doesn't have much of a personality which is odd because the pilot is trying to give him some edge. He's stuck living with the main female protagonist, female reporter Julia Shumway whose husband he just killed at the beginning of the episode. Julia is largely a non-entity. Her whole personality is boiled down to her job. When she finds out that her husband hasn't been working every Sunday like she believed, her reaction in a later scene is that she's a reporter who doesn't even know what's going on with her husband. This is a fine line but it basically reveals how that's the only part of her character that was established. I'm guessing the antagonist is Big Jim, the local politician who is left in control of the town. He's written pretty much exactly as you would expect. None of them really made a big impression. Julia is defined by her job, Big Jim is a stereotype, and I'm not sure what Barbie is supposed to be. We follow him a lot and he does a lot what a protagonist is supposed to do but we get a lot of hints that he's not. I don't mind deeply flawed characters but that would require Barbie to be one. Right now, he feels more like a plot device with secrets than anything else. The role he should play is the new guy in town that allows the writers to introduce us to the characters but they don't do this.
The pilot has a slew of other characters. The sheriff is Duke Perkins, who acts about as typically as possible except when the conversation turns to the oil. He's become corrupted which should mean something except there's nobody to really be corrupted. His deputy, Linda, is new to the job and played by Natalie Martinez but the only thing we know about her is that she's a cop. The town's DJ is Phil but once again all we know is what his job is. We know he likes classical rock but we don't know much about him. His engineer, Dodee, is similarly undeveloped. The show has two lesbians and a daughter arrive at the town and there are signs of personality there. Norrie is the typical rebellious teenager who needs to be sent to a tough love camp. Carolyn and Alice blended in a bit together but one of them was more of a worry-wart than the other. The show also employs young characters. There is a young teenager, Joe, who likewise has no personality but his parents are on the other side of the dome. Angie wants to leave the town but that's basically all there is to her character. She gets captured by the boyfriend she breaks up with at the beginning of the episode, Junior. He's a creep who doesn't know how to get over girls. He's not very well defined but he's actually the most fleshed out character this show has. Under the Dome had too many plots, it had too many characters, and it had a premise to establish that the pilot sort of fell under it's own weight. The only way this pilot could have worked is if was able to spend it's time. Cut down on the plot to establish each character. If possible, make it two hours so that every character could be introduced and developed. As it stands, Under the Dome is beginning as a mess which means it's going to be difficult for future episodes to fix especially due to it's serialized nature.
Under the Dome begins on very shaky ground. It has a high concept premise but it's drowned out by everything that the pilot has to establish. There are multiple plot threads running that make it confusing to get oriented in the show. There are too many characters that not a single one of them is really all that established. The series is trying to set up complex situations and characters but fails because it can't spend enough time with any of them. It's a huge disappointment for such a hyped series. Can it get better? Sure-but that would mean having to learn patience and not cramming so many things into 45 minutes. It's doubtful that the creators will learn this lesson in time to fully correct the ship. Even so-I'm intrigued by the premise and I'm hoping that it will be able to pull itself together for that reason. Just make no mistake: Under the Dome has a very weak start. The characters aren't there, the premise is too much in the background, and the plots are overwhelming. It should have started simple but it instantly went to complex. And in doing so, the pilot wasn't able to establish any depth to it's complexity.