I was slogging through the awful third episode of CBS’ hit summer series Under the Dome when I decided to liven up my unpleasant viewing experience. I pulled up a Word doc and took notes every time I heard an unintentionally amusing piece of dialogue. The doc quickly grew in length, and I came to realize one of my biggest problems with this disappointing series. The characters aren’t real people! I don’t believe that real-life versions of the people in this story would say the things the writers are making them say.
I understand I’m not watching a documentary. But I am watching a show that purports to take something people in real life have experienced (small-town life) and place it in an unusual fantasy context. And yet, the people on the show are as unbelievable as the sci-fi conceit. I can’t emotionally invest in Under the Dome because the characters don’t make any sense, and the dome issue doesn’t really seem to affect them in the way that it would any real human being.
We see townspeople sitting in a diner, sipping coffee and shooting the breeze, apparently forgetting about the fact that their food and drink supply is quickly dwindling and there might not be much more breeze to shoot if the townspeople use up all of the remaining air. One of the teenage characters discovers that the dome is somewhat permeable to water, but instead of telling the world about this discovery (which intelligent or at least mildly enterprising adults really ought to have made before he did), he keeps it to himself because…why? Who knows? Science fiction needs to have the courage of its own convictions. If I’m required to take the many leaps in logic required to accept that a giant dome can just appear over a small town with no warning, the show had better treat the problem of the dome seriously.
Instead, the dome is almost an afterthought. Beyond the fairly entertaining if problematic pilot, the three subsequent episodes have centered around conflicts that could have easily taken place without the presence of a dome: a house fire, a search party for a rogue cop, and a meningitis outbreak. Of the three, the last one at least managed to connect tangentially to the dome, with people realizing that the disease would spread rather quickly with everyone essentially stuck in an enormous incubator, but even this conflict resolves itself in conspicuously neat fashion by the end of the episode. The show has no stakes beyond “Some stuff happens, and there’s a big dome.”
The one excellent actor on the show, Dean Norris of Breaking Bad, has a character whose motivations are shrouded in mystery. Now, I like a good mystery as much as the next guy, but I think too many post-Lost sci-fi shows have misunderstood the function of mystery and obfuscation in a serialized narrative. Withholding “answers” from us for the sake of withholding answers is more annoying than riveting. When it comes to revealing a character’s motivations, the more interesting route would be to reveal them upfront and then explore their ramifications when the character interacts with other people who know less than the audience does. Obscuring the characters’ motivations is a lazy way of skimping on character development. Councilman Rennie appears to know far more about the dome than he’s let on to the public, but we only knew this because of a few scenes with lots of pronouns (“it,” “we”). I don’t really care where the dome came from because I don’t care about anything that’s happened since it got there. What’s an answer going to do for me? I care far more about how the presence of the dome is impacting the state of affairs in this strange town.
Part of the problem is that the writers have to be careful about stretching the premise as long as they can. The show’s a big hit, and so it will probably be renewed for a second season. You can’t make a show called Under the Dome if there’s no dome for the characters to be under, so the writers will have to keep thinking of ways to extend the show’s premise. There are ways to do this that would be interesting, but the writers don’t seem to know the meaning of the word.
And don’t even get me started on the storyline involving Junior and his girlfriend.
OK, too late, you got me started. Councilman Rennie’s son Junior is keeping his girlfriend Angie hostage in the Rennies’ cellar because he thinks that the presence of the dome is causing her to forget that she truly loves him (when, in fact, she’s turned off by the fact that he’s a deranged creep with a terrible haircut). This storyline offends me on several levels. It’s dispiriting to watch the familiar dynamic of a male character dominating over a female character in such outlandish and unnecessary fashion – Junior seems to be a different person with each passing scene, and Angie (Britt Robertson) isn’t nearly compelling enough for us to care that she’s chained to a bedpost. Even the show seems uncomfortable with this storyline. Junior kidnapped Angie in the pilot, but Angie’s brother didn’t even think to ask anyone where his sister was until episode four. (Angie’s brother is the same kid who didn’t think to tell anyone about the water situation. I don’t think his head is screwed on quite right.)
The talent involved with this show gives me some extremely tentative hope. It’s based on a book by Stephen King, though the creators have said that they plan to deviate substantially from the book’s narrative. That’s a blessing and a curse: the book takes place over the course of a week, but the show will have to find ways to stretch out the conflict for multiple seasons. On the other hand, people who have read the book seem to find the ultimate explanation for the presence of the dome unsatisfying to say the least. Perhaps the creators will find a more interesting endgame. Brian K. Vaughan and Jack Bender, both veterans of Lost, are executive producers, so they at least have experience with characters that audiences actually like and want to learn more about. Even the cast has potential: Norris is fantastic, Mike Vogel (Pan Am, Bates Motel) might be more effective with better material, and Robertson demonstrated a wider range of gifts in Life Unexpected.
Right now, though, this is one dumb dome.
And now, I present a list of terrible lines from recent episodes of Under the Dome. (To repeat a joke I made on Twitter: “This show has more clunkers than a lot full of used cars.”)
“You’re a real run-towards-the-fire kinda girl, aren’t you?”
“I miss texting.” “It’s been a day and a half!”
“I will not continence any kind of frontier justice!”
“Where can a girl charge up in this town?”
“Not usually a mooch, but without my music I can get a little, you know, super bitchy.”
“This is all a misunderstanding.” “No, it’s not. It’s a dome!”
“Nine years it’s been since your mother died.”
“Take a pause!”
“The key to a civilized society is a well-informed public.” “Don’t forget indoor plumbing!”
“Animals eat standing up, right?”
“The music they play on WYBS is like, totally schizo.”
“A man stands up, a man doesn’t screw up.”
“Monopoly’s not illegal, we’ve got the board game at my house.”
“This ain’t even close to over, Scarecrow.”
“I was never much of a team sports kind of guy.”
“That thing blew up like the death star!”
“Something goes boom in a small town, parents tend to know.”
“So that comment you made about me running into the fire was aggravatingly hypocritical.”