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.