‘Under the Dome’: premiere episode review


From our tribal beginnings, humanity has developed two schools of thought regarding evil. One idea suggests that evil exists ‘out there’, as a dark force that seeks to destroy us. The second idea posits that evil exists ‘inside’ of us, poisoning our hearts from within. These concepts are as old as civilization, and can still be seen at the heart of much of our modern horror stories. It is this intersection of external and internal terror that we see most prominently in the work of author Stephen King. King is often cited as ‘America’s boogeyman’, and given his work, it’s not hard to see why. The man who gave us The Shining, Carrie and Salem’s Lot is, without question, a purveyor of horrors.  But the aspect of King’s work, more important than his monsters, is his portrayal of small town people and the secrets they keep. It is this confluence of human horror and outside forces that set up the pressure cooker seen in Under the Dome, the new CBS miniseries based on his novel.

The pilot doesn’t waste time setting up the show’s themes. We transition from a baby bird breaking out of its shell, to a man burying a corpse in the woods. This iconography gives us everything we need to know about the series before introducing us to the characters. From this Hitchcockian scene, we observe the town of Chester’s Mill and a few of its citizens. We meet several of the expected small town archetypes: the used car dealer/politician, the diner owner as well as the local sheriff and a young couple in turmoil. It doesn’t take long before a mysterious, transparent dome is placed over the town, killing or maiming several people in the process, as well as cutting Chester’s Mill off from the rest of the world.

As if the general shock of being inside a giant dome weren’t enough, the characters soon learn the practical horrors of being cut off from the rest of society. Parents are unable to make it to their children, the local doctor is missing and most of the police force is out of town. Under new pressure, old grudges and secrets begin bubbling to the surface, not to mention the cryptic seizures certain citizens are experiencing. This is familiar territory for King*, but this story also shares DNA with Orson Welles’ radio play of War of the Worlds and Rod Serling’s The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. If the mystery of the dome isn’t solved, the people of Chester’s Mill will have more to worry about than not being able to get to Denny’s.

Though some of the effects in the show aren’t great, they are on par with those seen on SyFy**. However, this show isn’t about effects, it’s about the characters and storylines, and so far, both are compelling. This adept handling of the script makes sense, because the teleplay was written by none other than Brian K. Vaughan. Vaughan is responsible for some of the best genre writing in the world of television and comic books in the last decade, including Y: The Last Man and Lost. So far, the first episode shows his balance with storylines and characters, which is good news, because we have a lot to cover.

It’s true that television adaptations of Stephen King novels have traditionally been treated with the subtlety of a jack hammer, and Under the Dome has a few ‘less than subtle’ moments. However, the pilot episode handles these moments well, taking the first episode to establish several plotlines as well as set up character and tension. We’ll see what future episodes hold, but for now, kidnapping, murder and alien transmissions should be enough to pique everyone’s interest.

As the first episode ends, we realize that people are still trying to keep their secrets, still trying to keep their masks on, and we are left to wonder, are the monsters inside or outside of Chester’s Mill?




*The Mist


**I still despise having to call it that.

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