Friday, June 28, 2013

Unpopular Opinions - Under the Dome shouldn't explain the dome's origin

I know this is an incredibly early discussion to be having, what with exactly one episode having aired, but the general discussion around CBS’s Under the Dome this past week has always eventually broached, at least among those who have read the books, the apparently dreadful way author Stephen King explained the origin and nature of the dome.  Dan Feinberg of, on his podcast with fellow critic Alan Sepinwall, argued that any ending Brian K. Vaughan and company can come up with will be better than King’s.  Zack Handlen over at the AV Club wrote that “the final twist (which seems to be what draws the most ire from readers) was fundamentally irrelevant, a kind of ‘Oh, I guess I should wrap this up, eh?’ conclusion that doesn’t really diminish the madness that came before it.”  This discussion got me thinking, does Under the Dome have to explain where the dome came from?

Let me preface this discussion by saying that I haven’t read the book, though I’ve read enough about it to have a vague idea of what the final explanation for the dome involves.  I won’t be getting into any spoilers, though, if you care about that sort of thing. 

If the last several years of serialized storytelling on television have taught me anything, it’s that when a show has mysteries, no matter how large or small they are, viewers will expect answers to those mysteries that are neither obvious nor out of left field.  The most obvious example of this is Lost.  Lost was a show built around mysteries and a show that didn’t seem to care which questions the fans wanted solved and often answered questions nobody had ever even though to ask, like where Jack’s tattoos came from.  Even their answers usually brought more questions, like the reveals of what was in the hatch or who The Others were.  And many times, when mysteries were explained, such as the nature of the whispering voices on the island, the response from many people was, “well that was obvious; we thought of that ages ago.”

Even shows that don’t base their storytelling around mysteries can get caught up in the guessing game.  Just look at the craziness that followed Bob Benson and Megan Draper on Mad Men this year.  The show introduced a seemingly innocuous brown-noser as SCDP’s new accounts man, but the internet refused to allow Bob Benson to be just an innocuous brown-noser.  Depending on whom you asked and when you asked, he was either Don Draper’s long-forgotten son, a corporate spy, an investigator from the SEC, the FBI, the NSA, or the CIA, a serial killer, or a time-traveler.  He was none of these things, obviously.  It turned out he was Dick Whitman 2.0, a chameleon who ingratiated himself into SCDP through sheer force of will and was created by the writers not as some grand mystery to be solved, but as a foil for Pete, to see what, if anything, the head of accounts had learned from his last encounter with such a character.

Worse still was what happened when a costume designer put Jessica ParĂ© in a white t-shirt with a red star on the front.  It was the same t-shirt once worn by Sharon Tate in a photo shoot, prior to her death at the hands of the infamous Manson family.  Suddenly, Megan Draper was Sharon Tate and the up-and-coming actress was destined be murdered like the actress whose shirt she wore.  Then, Megan had the audacity to spend an entire episode without talking to anybody but Don, which led to the most fantastically ludicrous fan theory in the history of television: In a Shyamalanian twist, Megan Draper was apparently already dead.

The theories were ultimately proven ridiculous of course.  This is a show that has had one major character die in the entire six year run and which foreshadowed that death with an entire season of financial trouble and, not one, but two separate suicide attempts.  But that’s where television is now.  We’re constantly searching for smaller and smaller mole hills that we try to turn into bigger and bigger mountains because one of these days, dammit, just one of these days we’re going to be right and Bobby Ewing will step out of that shower, tell us it was all a dream, and we will raise our fists in triumph because WE CALLED IT!

Because that’s what this is all about.  The discussion of wildly insane theories is fun and can be a useful part of the fan experience.  But what ultimately drives it, I think, is the desperate need to be right; and, even more importantly, to be right when others are wrong.

So that brings us back to Under the Dome.  As I see it, there are basically four explanations for how the dome came to Chester’s Mill: the government did it, terrorists did it, aliens did it, or a mad scientist did it.  None of these answers would be particularly shocking and, if done well, could provide a reasonably satisfying conclusion.  But none of them are particularly amazing answers and any truly “shocking” ending is probably going to be criticized for coming out of left field.  So my solution is simple: don’t explain the dome.  Ever.  When the series ends, let the dome stay in place or take it away, whichever works best.  Just don’t explain how it got there.  Make the dome the setting, not the story.

Such a conceit has been done before.  I’m reminded of an independent film from a couple years ago called Another Earth.  The movie stars William Mapother and Brit Marling and involves a second earth, exactly like our own, appearing in the sky.  Your standard science fiction movie would have used this plot device to show us board rooms filled with scientists, politicians, and military trying to figure out a) where the planet came from, b) how to communicate with it, and c) how to destroy it.  Our hero (I’m thinking Jeremy Renner) would inevitably end up fighting himself on the other planet (bizarro-Jeremy Renner will have a goatee and facial scar, obviously).  And the film would end with the two planets coming to a grudging acceptance of each other’s existence.

Another Earth takes a different tactic however.  It actually doesn’t care much about Earth 2 at all.  There’s no discussion of the physical effects of an earth-sized planet in orbit.  We don’t meet anybody from “over there.”  Rather, it’s a movie about two people whose paths have crossed twice with results first catastrophic, then cathartic.  The science fiction elements of the movie are not the story, but rather the setting for the story to be told.
Under the Dome can do the same thing.  Let the dome be the setting for the story of Chester’s Mill without becoming the story itself.  Now, the show would have to be constructed properly to allow this ending.  Lost had to explain the island because, by the very nature of the show, the island itself is a character.  But Under the Dome is under no such obligation.  If they can make the characters and their stories interesting, they can explore what happens to people when they’re thrust into an insane situation without the hassle of having to wrap up every single question with a nice little bow.  There are plenty of mysteries still for viewers to obsess over (Why is Barbie burying Julia’s husband?  What’s with all the propane?).  The dome need not even be a mystery.  It’s just there.  Let it be scenery, and nothing more.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Under the Dome Series Premiere Review: Can I Interest You in a Side of Beef?

 Credit: CBS

CBS is the champion.  About this there can be no discussion.  This past television season, CBS beat its closest competitors by almost 50% in total viewers and by 16% in the all-important adults 18-49 demographic.  And while every network this year was down from last, CBS was down the least, dropping only 3% from 2011-12 (second-place Fox had the deepest plunge at 22%).  So CBS is playing from a position of strength and really has been for the last several years.  Even Fox’s recent dominance in the A18-49 demo came largely on the back of fading American Idol.  And its reliance on singing competitions (including X-Factor, which never caught on) has largely killed its drama development.  The only drama Fox has developed in the last eight years to air more than 48 episodes was perennial cancelation target Fringe.

This is all preface to the point that, of all the networks, CBS has the least need to experiment.  They’ve built a reliable brand around multi-cam sitcoms and procedural dramas and, as a result, have built the most-watched network on television.  And yet, even with that success, CBS has refused to stand pat.  In 2010, the network surprised many observers by pulling Thursday night anchor Survivor from the 8:00pm perch it had held for a decade, since its second season aired in the spring of 2001.  A tentpole series, once capable of regularly attracting 25+ million viewers was hoisted from its foundation, all so that a decently-rated comedy could take its place.  That comedy, The Big Bang Theory, is now the highest-rated scripted show on television and last year turned into a lead-in for the show that had once been its lead-in, Two and a Half Men.  And again, this fall, CBS is making another big play, moving the third most-watched show on television (Person of Interest) out of its Thursday slot to make room for another hour of comedy.

With CBS refusing to stand pat, it should be of little surprise, then, that they seem to be leading the networks’ push into the arena of so-called “event series” with an adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome.  Since Roots destroyed the network competition for eight nights more than 35 years ago, miniseries on American television have largely been under the purview of the cable networks.  HBO has had a great deal of success with miniseries, while Syfy and others dove to the bottom of the well for miniseries ideas before migrating to made-for-TV movies.  Miniseries have seen something of a renaissance on cable in the last few years with highly-rated outings like History’s Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible and Emmy-bait like USA’s Political Animals and Sundance’s Top of the Lake.  It was only a matter of time until the networks started trying to fill their vast expanses of empty summer timeslots with new short-run programming.  And so it was that CBS led the charge by announcing its pick up of Dome as a summer series and was followed a few months later by Fox’s announcement of two limited-run series set for the summer of 2014: the M. Night Shyamalan-produced Wayward Pines and, of course, the return of Kiefer Sutherland and 24. 

Now, it’s not entirely clear whether Under the Dome’s run will be limited to this summer.  The show was originally pitched to Showtime as a miniseries, but its producers have left open the possibility of continuing the story should the ratings justify it.  But whether Dome lasts past these 13 episodes or not, CBS is still trying something very different.  The summer on network television right now is a vast wasteland of repeats, reality shows, dreadful (but cheap) foreign co-productions and, for ABC and NBC, NBA and NHL playoffs.  For CBS to bring out a series with this kind of pedigree (Stephen King, obviously, but showrunner Brian K. Vaughan was an award-winning comic book writer before he joined the Lost writing staff, Lost director Jack Bender is on board, and the pilot was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who was responsible for the critically acclaimed Swedish edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in the summer is a big step in the battle to bring viewers back to summer network television.  And it’s quite possible that this show could continue on even with mediocre ratings.  Josef Adalian over at Vulture has a fantastic article indicating that owing, to several factors (presold syndication with Amazon, tax credits from filming in North Carolina, and international sales), Under the Dome has likely already earned back its production budget before selling a single ad.  CBS isn’t blazing entirely new trails here, but they’re definitely bringing together a lot of outside-the-box ideas and throwing them into one show.

So, with all that prologue laid out, is Under the Dome any good?  So far, I’d say yes.  Of all the genres of horror, dread is probably the most difficult to pull off.  Some shows this year have done it spectacularly.  Game of Thrones’s penultimate episode “The Rains of Castamere” is dripping with dread, whether you’ve read the books or not and NBC’s Hannibal, while it uses a lot of gruesome imagery to the set the tone, relies on dread to carry the feeling of terror throughout each episode.  Now, those are two of the best shows on television and I don’t believe Dome is in their league yet.  But it does manage to accomplish the one feat that’s most important in this type of horror storytelling: it makes you care about the characters.

The pilot opens with a prologue in which mystery man Barbie (Mike Vogel) is seen burying a body in a field.  The identity of the victim (and how he got there) are unknown at this point, though we do learn who it is later in the episode in a twist that’s likely to have repercussions later on the down the line.  The first act of the episode is used to establish as many characters as possible before the dome comes down (and there are a lot of characters).  Chester’s Mill’s Sheriff Duke (Jeff Fahey) is appropriately Jeff Faheyian and anybody who has seen his turn as Frank Lapidus on Lost will understand what he’s doing here.  His deputy Linda (Natalie Martinez) is a poor man’s Deputy Jo from Eureka.  Dean Norris’s “Big” Jim is a car dealer and city councilman who is equal parts sleazy and generous in all the right ways.  Julia (Rachelle Lefevre) is the local newspaper editor who gives us our vocational irony narrative as the reporter who can’t see the story under her nose.  And Junior (Alexander Koch) and Angie (Britt Robertson), in the show’s absolute worst storyline thus far, are a couple with somewhat violent tendencies and completely different views on their future – he’s in love while she just wants a summer fling. 

Once the dome comes down, the rest of the episode largely revolves around people trying to keep others from killing themselves by running into it and trying to figure out what’s going on.  The effects of the dome itself are at times excellent (the eponymous splitting of a cow and a truck crashing headlong into the dome) and at others terrible (a plane crashes into the dome in an entirely convincing fashion).  Once in place, all communication with the outside world has been cut off (an apparent departure from the novels), though the independent radio station is capable of picking up occasional bursts of activity and Jim races to the station in the hopes that he can convince people to stay off the roads and avoid killing themselves on the wall.

There’s a lot more setup here than story (as generally befits a concept pilot and the first few chapters of a book), so it’s difficult to go into much more plot, but a lot of the familiar Stephen King tropes are here.  There’s the mystery man (Barbie), the old woman who knows more than she’s letting on (Dale Raoul’s Andrea), the bigger mystery that you know is going to be important (somebody’s been trucking in tankloads of propane), the parentless children (Angie and her brother Joe, played by Colin Ford), the eventual power struggle between Jim and Duke, and the supernatural experience (two teenagers collapse into seizures and begin chanting “The stars are falling”).

For the most part, all of these stories and characters are effective.  The cast is populated with a rogues gallery of “Hey it’s that guys!” who have established themselves as solid supporting or ensemble actors in the past.  Vogel is the ostensible lead and, while his previous network series Pan Am didn’t become the hit ABC was hoping for, the cast was certainly not the reason and Vogel was perfectly fine as Captain Dean Lowery.  Dean Norris is probably the most recognizable face, coming over from Breaking Bad, where he played DEA Agent Hank Schrader.  He’s given more to do here and nicely blends the affable car salesman with the potentially threatening city councilman.  And Britt Robertson takes a definite step up from her lead roles in a pair of short-lived CW shows (Secret Circle and Life Unexpected).

That said, I do have two problems with this pilot: one a minor quibble and one a potentially serious problem.  In the “minor quibble” department, the pilot twice steps outside the dome and neither sequence really adds much to the story to the point where I’d rather they had just stayed inside the town for the entire episode.  The bigger problem is with Junior.  He ramps up from zero to mustache-twirling villain in about three minutes of total screentime and his storyline utilizes the laziest of horror tropes (pretty young white girl being terrorized by a psychopathic man).  It’s not a huge issue yet, but the faster that story is resolved, the happier I’ll be.

So Under the Dome isn’t perfect yet, but the pilot is definitely a positive first outing.  It’ll be interesting to see if the show is treated as a miniseries or an ongoing series.  A show like this seems ripe for killing a character every now and then, but ongoing series generally don’t like to do that.  My understanding is that the producers have permission to deviate from the novel and tell their own story, but I think the miniseries Under the Dome has a lot more leeway to take chances than the series Under the Dome would.  We’ll just have to wait and see what decisions are made going forward but, for now, I’m on board.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Welcome to Tyler Talks TV, where I'll be reviewing Ray Donovan, The Newsroom, and Covert Affairs this summer along with other television and ratings news.  Who knows.  If this works we'll find other things to talk about this fall.

Tyler is a librarian by day who cares way too much about television: the good, the bad, and even the ugly.