At the time of this post Under the Dome is two episodes old. For that reason, I acknowledge that I may be doing the series something of an injustice in judging it after eighty-some minutes of story. But the more I think about this series’ current trajectory, the more I suspect its inevitable destination is cancellation and obscurity.
Critics better than I have already pointed out there’s a lack of momentum to the story of Chester’s Mill. The first two episodes seemed to lurch from one plot point to the next without providing the audience a tangible conflict beyond “Hey, it sure would be nice to get out from under this dome.”
At first, I suspected the meta-story would manifest as a reverse Battlestar Galactica. The tension between Duke and Big Jim certainly seemed a suitable breeding ground for a discussion on elected vs appointed power. Then Duke died, and now we’re on to a propane conspiracy. Fine, whatever. I’m not here to judge on those grounds. But it, along with the same-sex parents, psycho kidnapper, and mysterious stranger, speaks to the larger problem with this series: it’s a one trick pony that’s eventually going to collapse under its own potential cleverness.
Even though life in Chester’s Mill is continuing thanks to the aforementioned natural gas intrigue, eventually the cop who shot the dome in episode two is going to be proven correct. Food will run scarce. The gas will get used up. Wells will run dry. Septic tanks will fill to bursting. When that day comes, nobody is going to remember the time the town came together to put out the fire at Duke’s house. They’ll be too busy bartering the virginity of their daughters for a glass of water and a hunk of their dead neighbour’s leg meat. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Though it does raise the question of where a series can go from there. How can an audience relate to characters once their situation has reduced them to an atavistic state? And would CBS really have the nerve to pull the trigger on such a horrifying story?
This is why stories that essentially strand people on an island are such fickle creatures. Battlestar Galactica could safely play with this idea only through the contrivance of jumping the fleet. There was always another planet around the corner which would provide much needed food, water, fuel, or democracy. The writing could flirt with mankind’s inner darkness without ever committing to a total breakdown of social order.
Under the Dome doesn’t have such a luxury. The fact that a character has gone to the trouble of making explicit Chester’s Mill’s ticking death clock forces the writing to address this inevitable conflict. A protracted delay or outright failure to do so will make the story seem either lazy or stupid. Neither option is amenable to crafting a successful piece of television.
Then there’s the dome, itself. Though it’s a clever concept, the writers are turning it into a double edged sword without a hilt. On the one hand, you can never ever breach the dome. If the people of Chester’s Mill find a way out of captivity, the story is over. On the other hand if somebody finds their way into the town, be it aliens, the army, or Santa Claus, the series becomes Lost reborn and the audience will throw out the bullshit flag. Thus, the second Brian K. Vaughan and Neal Baer decide to swing this sword with any force they’re likely going to cut off their own hands, leaving the series unable to do anything but bleed to death for the audience’s amusement.
What to do in the meantime? Seemingly bore the audience to tears with endless ontological arguments/speculation about the dome. Who did this? Why are they doing this? Surely there must be a reason for this. Perhaps we can use science mumbo jumbo to figure out what’s going on. Except that if we get a cause that meets a means test of plausibility, it sets the story on a single track whereby it has to follow those clues to a natural end point where either A) Everybody dies or B) some/all people get out.
What then should the audience expect going forward with this series? Wanking, and lots of it. Amid the red herrings and hand wringing on the part of the central players, there’s probably going to be a doubling down on the short-term interpersonal conflicts that are the stuff of bad soap operas. Meanwhile Big Jim, Deputy Esquivel, and…Barbie (If I feel stupid typing that name I can only imagine how Mike Vogel feels saying it) can’t ignore the dome, because what sensible person would in their situation? Again, they can’t ever do anything to remove the dome, or cross a thin red line of knowledge about the dome, lest the series blow its load on one of the two aforementioned resolutions.
Perhaps this is why King’s novels are largely adapted for film and mini-series: his stories have endings. Television, unlike literature and film, can go on well past a natural conclusion so long as the ratings are there. If the first two episodes of Under the Dome are any indication of what’s to come, then this series should have been done in the style of The Stand rather than the slowly paced low-concept tedium that we’re seeing now.