Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Under the Dome Season Premiere Review: "Heads Will Roll" - Plot Versus Character

That noose has way too much slack in "Under the Dome"

On Sunday, HBO debuted a new series based on Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers.  The series is set three years after the unexplained disappearance of two percent of the world’s population but the show is utterly unconcerned with the whys and hows of what happened.  It just happened, and nobody – not science, not religion, not anybody – knows why.  Rather, the show is about the characters and how they are moving on (or failing to move on) in the wake of this disaster.  It is essentially a show about grieving and loss, in which “the crazy thing that happens,” is merely the impetus for exploring characters, rather than the story itself.

Under the Dome, through much of season one but especially in “Heads Will Roll,” takes the exact opposite tactic.  This show cares about nothing but the dome and the effects it has on the citizens of Chester’s Mill.  There is so much emphasis on plot and making the dome not just the focus of the story, but the driving force behind the plot, that the characters are just pieces moving on a game board.  They have no agency.  They don’t progress.  They just take on the traits and make the decisions that the dome and the show want them to whenever it’s convenient.

I thought last season’s finale (and the cliffhanger in particular) was pretty much a disaster, and the season premiere – penned by Stephen King, himself – did little to boost my confidence except that everything was largely reset by the end, giving the show a relatively clear path forward.  For all that happened in this episode, very little of it had any consequence and was largely gibberish meant to counter the gibberish from the finale.  And so much of it was so dumb.  The dome starts “groaning” and knocking people unconscious.  On a better show, this is an idea that would be used to create an immense sense of dread as townspeople start collapsing progressively throughout the episode.  But here, the first wave of fainting serves mostly to rid the episode of extras as the only people who survive are the named cast members and the three new characters we need to be introduced to.*  And by the second time people collapse, the problem has basically been fixed and the only remaining drama is whether or not Julia can keep Big Jim from killing himself (which, why?).

* Yes, it’s only the second season and Under the Dome is already pulling a Nikki and Paulo.

Or take the scene at Norrie’s house with the kids (who were shockingly my favorite part of the first season).  It’s an incredibly tense piece of action, with pots, pans, and knives flying all over the place as Joe, Angie, and Norrie try to rescue an unconscious Carolyn.  And yet, its tension is significantly undercut because Joe manages to have a nail injected into his hand have it GO THROUGH HIS ENTIRE HAND WITHOUT SCREAMING IN PAIN!  Seriously?  He has a nail shoot into his hand and then tear its way through and he doesn’t give more than an initial yelp. 

Speaking of pain, it’s awfully remarkable that Julia can manage to swim out into the middle of the lake to rescue a girl and help Barbie move a giant kitchen cupboard less than 24 hours after being shot.  Selective amnesia is a recurring problem in this episode as everybody has apparently decided to collectively forget that Junior imprisoned Angie for an extended period of time not too long ago.  Forgotten, too, is basically all talk of the Monarch as apparently nobody really cares to ask why the dome went from clear to black to white.  That’s not to say that talk of the Monarch or its importance won’t return in the future but in “Heads Will Roll” all continuity and serialization is swept aside for plot.

This is a problem that Under the Dome has had for a while now.  Its “Mishap of the Week” stories tend to overwhelm everything else.  I understand that television shows need weekly structure, but they also need characters that progress, and change, and make decisions based on their past decisions and current desires.  These characters don’t do any of that.  They make decisions and change based on the demands of the current story and nothing else.  The show needs Junior to be a more sympathetic character, so he finally decides to turn against his father, despite there being no new information presented that would make him change his mind, and everybody decides to forget about the whole “imprisoning Angie” thing.  Likewise, the show needs Julia to be the hero, so she saves the day multiple times despite being injured and even talks Big Jim out of killing himself despite knowing full well that he’s killed before and will likely kill again.  It’s all well and noble to say that the dome “wants us to end the killing,” but it doesn’t seem like that sentiment would apply to the town’s worst murderer.  Under the Dome does not have character development.  It has plot points that dictate the characters.

Despite all of these major, major problems, I still can’t help but feel like there’s potential here.  While they were introduced in incredibly clumsy fashion, I really liked the two new characters who were introduced last night.  I don’t buy for a second that Big Jim wouldn’t have sought out his brother-in-law (or Junior his uncle) at some point before now, but Eddie Cahill did a fine job as the enigmatic Sam.  I likewise found ridiculous the idea that there’s a science teacher who has been studying the dome all this time but not telling anybody about it, especially since Joe and his buddy made such a big deal last year about mapping the dome.  But Karla Crome came in, aptly uploaded some exposition, and seems like she’ll be a good addition to the cast. 

I also liked that we finally got to see outside the dome.  Granted it was with one of those classic Lost-esque answers that only raise more questions, but it’s nice to get a glimpse of what the world is saying about Chester’s Mill.  I don’t know that I would have said that at the beginning of last season, but given how little sense the goings on under the dome make these days, I welcome any opportunity to bring in characters who are actually characters and not just plot devices. 

To bring it back to my comparison with The Leftovers, I can’t help but feel like Under the Dome would be incredibly well-served by a time jump.  The Leftovers realized that this part, the Mishap of the Week period of the show, is the boring part.  It’s just one maguffin after another, sucking up all the running time in plot without allowing for any story or character development.  Despite all of Dome’s problems, I do still really like some of these characters and would like to see how they develop when they don’t have to deal with some random problem each week.  Under the Dome will not do this.  But “Heads Will Roll” provides enough of a reset point that I hope they start leaning more towards character and less on plot.

A couple of spare thoughts –

So Sheriff Linda dies in the most “our actor wants off the show and we have to write her out immediately” way possible.  The effects work with all of the metal objects in town being drawn magnetically to the wall was great, but this is yet another example of the show killing characters just to kill them which, at some point, loses its power.

Speaking of death, I guess Angie is dead.  The blood spatter would certainly seem to indicate such but I really hope not.  I like Angie when she’s not stuck in a bomb shelter and Britt Robertson is giving one of the better performances on the show.

In the opening monologue Barbie says “We will never stop fighting to find a way out,” which makes me wonder when they ever started.

Despite Stephen King penning this episode, the dialogue felt awfully on point at times.  “Do it now!” “I’m afraid.” “I think the dome is trying to tell us something.”  “The dome didn’t want us to kill you.  It wants to end the killing.”

Next week’s review will likely be late(r) owing to my vacation this coming weekend, but I'm hoping to get it posted on Wednesday or Thursday. 

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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