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Over the Top – an UNDER THE DOME Retrospective

The first point my girlfriend suggested we stop watching Under the Dome was around the episode ‘Going Home’, the midway point roughly of Season Two. We had reached a crossroads as viewers. Enough had maintained our interest to continue watching beyond Season One, but by this point we knew that the Brian K. Vaughan spearheaded adaptation of Stephen King’s novel wasn’t going to get any better. She wisely voted to cut our losses but, me being me, I wanted to stay in for the long haul, my reasoning being that we’d already watched 20 episodes and the investment of time was such we needed to see it through to the bitter end.

Just to put it out there, I was wrong. Very wrong. Under the Dome not only doesn’t reward sticking with it but it doesn’t reward making the effort in the first place. Don’t be fooled by King’s name over the door, Vaughan’s pedigree (he’d jumped ship by the start of S2) or the fact this has that bloke from Breaking Bad. What began as CBS’s highest ever rated drama plunged in the ratings the moment everyone realised what I had come to know by that mid-S2 episode – this is among the worst examples of serialised storytelling in a long, long time.

To summarise, Under the Dome takes place in the small, middle-American fictional town of Chester’s Mill (no doubt located in Maine where Stephen King sets everything), where one day a massive transparent dome appears at equidistant points around the town, sealing it off from the outside world; people can see in & out, but they can’t communicate via sound, and no transmissions can get in or out of the Dome. As you can imagine (if you *can* imagine a scenario like this), the town soon starts rallying around influential figures as they try and understand what’s happening, and secondly how to survive when they realise this isn’t a quick fix situation. You have ‘Big Jim’ Rennie, a charismatic car salesman who fancies himself something of a governor (played by the always excellent Dean Norris), safe pair of hands Sheriff Duke Perkins (Jeff Fahey), tough young cop Linda Esquivel (the comely Natalie Martinez) & local Reverend Lester Coggins (Ned Bellamy).

Our other major players in the ensemble all have their own varying introductory stories; ‘Junior’ Rennie (Alexander Koch) is a raving nutjob who kidnaps casual girlfriend & waitress Angie McAllister (Britt Robertson) to ‘cure’ her when she rejects him; town newcomer Dale ‘Barbie’ Barbra (Mike Vogel, and yes almost all the characters do have abbreviated names) is a shady character who starts sleeping with nosey town journalist Julia Shumway (the deeply irritating Rachelle Lefevre), unaware he’s just killed & buried her absent husband; Angie’s science genius brother Joe (Colin Ford) befriends brittle Norrie Calvert-Hill (Mackenzie Lintz), whose lesbian interracial parents (covering all the diverse bases in one, *slow clap*) end up trapped under the dome while passing through; and swiftly both Joe & Norrie start having seizures, saying arcane phrases like “pink stars are falling in lines” and basically teeing up the greater mystery that lies at the heart of the show. All fine, all dandy, all suitably melodramatic. All just the tip of the barmy iceberg.

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Under the Dome (2013-2015) – CBS

A sidebar, but Brian K. Vaughan among his comic book work also happened to write for Lost here and there. Now Lost has influenced a great deal of TV since it began and finished, divisive a series though it may be, so that’s no cause for alarm, but Under the Dome so painfully attempts to crib from that shows sense of mystery both in terms of the narrative and characters early on, it’s almost embarrassing. My aforementioned girlfriend suggested it was ‘Lost meets Desperate Housewives‘, and she’s spot on; it desperately wants to invest you in a creeping enigma while being as over the top, melodramatic and silly in terms of its characterisation as it could possibly be.

Rarely have I witnessed a show with so little subtlety as Under the Dome; every character explains almost everything in clear detail to each other for the audience’s benefit all the time, just to be sure those paying attention know precisely what everything means. Good luck with that though, because not even the writers know what half of this stuff means, and that becomes painfully apparent when we move into Season Two.

Alongside the long-running mystery of the seizures, of a weird pulsating egg found in another smaller dome in the forest, and weird visions presumably from whatever alien impulse is behind it, every episode in Season One throws another calamity & catastrophe at the characters to the point it becomes ridiculous. Oh, this week the crops are burning! Oh, this week the dome is shrinking! Oh, this week the air is running out! You could have a fun drinking game trying to work out what will happen to the dome next, which this rag tag group of characters have to try and work out solutions to prevent with almost zero scientific knowledge or rational understanding. Nobody in this show talks like a real person, and hilariously characters like Joe–established as a prodigy–spout extremely reaching theories about what’s going on that either turn out to be right, or everyone immediately believes is right. Nobody for one minute stops, even as the strangest stuff happens, and says “hold on, what the actual fuck??”.

Season One is probably the best it gets, in truth, given it does at least show some semblance of tapping into the underlying themes of a town facing its own internal struggles alongside some warped character motivations and the developing mystery of the egg, the dome and quite what it all may mean. Season Two, however, is almost immediately where the rot sets in. Martinez & Robertson get off the boat very early on (presumably while they still have some kind of career to salvage) and the former is essentially replaced by Rebecca Pine (Karla Crome), a school science teacher who for some reason never showed her face before, who immediately seems to know everything about complex science despite visibly never being seen teaching, and is so horrendously shrill & annoying she ranks as one of the worst characters the show ever produces. Robertson is effectively replaced by Grace Victoria Cox as Melanie, who is both central to the mythology of Chester’s Mill residents & an element of the dome itself, and her arrival signals the point where Under the Dome truly loses whatever plot it had in the first place.

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Under the Dome (2013-2015) – CBS

It descends into truly nonsensical plotting whereby we don’t just get the standard natural disasters the dome is creating, but a range of extra complications involving other towns, evil corporations, more eggs and weird caves which seem to have Lost-style portals which inexplicably seem to open and close at will, and it just gets increasingly more soap opera with extra weirdness. Said weirdness isn’t even that interesting either, as given Under the Dome wouldn’t know subtlety if it smashed it in the face, it makes no creative attempt to layer in a true sense of enigma or atmosphere. These things just exist and Barbie, Julia Shumway, Jim etc… all just have to end up constantly running around like headless chickens trying to get us from one plot point to the next, while everyone explains every last detail to the audience because they have no faith anyone can work out what’s happening, probably because none of it makes a lick of sense. Now

These things just exist and Barbie, Julia Shumway, Jim etc… all just have to end up constantly running around like headless chickens trying to get us from one plot point to the next, while everyone explains every last detail to the audience because they have no faith anyone can work out what’s happening, probably because none of it makes a lick of sense. Now Lost didn’t make a lick of sense either most of the time, but it least had a sense of gravitas, atmosphere and character reflection which allowed it to get away with a great deal. Under the Dome has none of these things and come the climax in ‘Go Now’ of a second season which stretches the concept to breaking point, Season Three truly descends into the seventh circle of madness.

It begins with a massive con job, with the residents of Chester’s Mill entering an alternate reality (which the incredibly leading ‘previously on’ tells us is an alternate reality, as GOD FORBID WE NOT UNDERSTAND SOMETHING) which allows the writers the chance to mix up all the characters, put them in new places and scenarios, only to then pull the rug from under us and *still* try and use the character development in that alternate reality to affect the plot in the reality that, y’know, exists. By this point all the budget you sense went on getting Marg Helgenberger in as Christine Price, a retro-fitted major player in the mythology who triggers a plot stolen, basically, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers as what turns out to be the final season becomes effectively a big riff on the alien invasion genre, only not even remotely as interesting as that might sound.

They throw in a brand new love interest for Barbie in Eva (Kylie Bunbury) who fulfills the ‘woman of ethnic origin’ quota the show seems to swap out every year and causes friction between Barbie and dysfunctional beloved Julia Shumway. You may be wondering why I keep referring to her full name, by the way. It’s because in the show, almost every time characters mention Julia they seem compelled to say her surname too, and by the point my girlfriend and I were so desperately bored at the nonsense on the screen, we shouted ‘Shumway’ every time Julia’s name was said. Believe me, it’s one of the few ways to have fun watching this.

Anyway, the third season goes round the houses repeatedly and then reaches a conclusion in ‘The Enemy Within’ which the writers would have you believe was an intended ending they were happy with. Pull the other one, Jack! The final scene very much suggests a fourth season which would have radically changed the playing field and widened out the concept beyond the first three seasons. It’s not a final episode with any true sense of finality and if you think by the end we have a true, reasoned understanding of why the dome came down and who was behind it, think again. We learn about a backstory in general terms but so many threads are left dangling we will never get an answer to, at least not in TV form.

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Under the Dome (2013-2015) – CBS

The craziest thing about Under the Dome? It all takes place over a four week period. Four. Weeks. Believe me, once you see the sheer amount of madness the writers throw at these characters, you will laugh at the very idea all of this happens over 30 days. It’s the most ludicrous aspect of a truly bonkers TV show, and importantly not bonkers enough to be fun or which rewards you for the effort. Stephen King’s book is undoubtedly better, no doubt laced with the storytelling skill and atmosphere this adaptation sorely lacks, so if you really want to know what’s under the dome, go and read his prose instead.

While not offensively bad or painfully dire, Under the Dome isn’t dramatic enough to make you care, or self-aware enough to know it’s patently ridiculous. In these times of confusion, with so much great TV out there, do yourself a favour and go watch something else. Or go watch Lost again, if you really want a compelling, involving mystery. You can do better than this.

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Over the Top – an UNDER THE DOME Retrospective
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