CBS’ ‘Under the Dome’: A thriller in a fishbowl

San Francisco ChronicleJune 19, 2013 

  • Under the Dome

    10 p.m. Monday on CBS

    Four stars (out of five)

— If you’ve ever felt like you’re living in a fishbowl, you’ve got nothing on the residents of Chester’s Mill, who suddenly find themselves sealed off from the rest of the world when a massive invisible dome descends on the town from nowhere.

“Under the Dome,” based on the novel by Stephen King (and filmed in Wilmington), adapted by Brian K. Vaughan and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, gets the summer TV season off to a rousing start when it premieres Monday on CBS in the same time slot occupied by NBC’s sci-fi hit “Revolution,” which ended its season earlier this month.

That’s no accident, believe me.

The show’s appeal will depend on the mystery of where the dome came from, of course, but also on the dramatic potential of people who are trapped – not only inside the dome, but with their own secrets, beginning with Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel, “Pan Am,” “Bates Motel”), who is burying a body in the woods as the premiere episode begins.

Like any small town – especially one depicted in literature or in TV and film – Chester’s Mill has an assortment of “types.” There’s the big-mouth politician, “Big Jim” Rennie (Dean Norris, “Breaking Bad”); the competent and, in this case, attractive Deputy Linda (Natalie Martinez, “Detroit 1-8-7”); the somewhat randy candy striper, Angie (Britt Robertson, “Dan in Real Life”); the editor of the town paper, Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, “Twilight”); the smart, wholesome teenage kid Joe (Colin Ford, “Supernatural”); and the town heartthrob, Junior (Alexander Koch, “The Ghosts”).

Some of their lives have intersected before the dome falls, but they’re destined to become even more intertwined now that they’re all trapped together. We see some of the characters’ real personalities in the pilot episode, and in some cases, they aren’t what we expected.

The performances are solid, for the most part. Vogel is making yet another bid for the TV stardom he seems destined for, and it’s momentarily funny when his character reveals his nickname is “Barbie,” since Vogel, a former model, is usually almost too good looking to be credible. He doesn’t look quite as picture-perfect this time, though, and a scruffy beard, the mysterious background of his character and why he was burying the body in the woods all contribute to making him more interesting than he was allowed to be in NBC’s “Pan Am.” The one troublesome performance is that of Alexander Koch playing Junior. It’s not his fault as much as it is Vaughan’s: The script tries too hard to get everything set up as thoroughly as possible in the pilot episode, which means that when we learn more about Junior, it’s not entirely credible. The script also errs, slightly, in how quickly the town turns from widespread panic to something approaching a new normalcy as residents of the super-size terrarium. There really should be more panic and terror for a much longer time than is suggested in the pilot.

But both problems can be overcome rather quickly. There is promise in the one episode of “Dome” sent to critics, and the series could work well, despite the fact that the general conceit of people living in a microcosm has been a staple of literature, film and TV forever. William Golding made memorable use of the concept using a controlled environment to uncover the true, sometimes animalistic nature of human beings in “Lord of the Flies,” but there have been countless other examples as well.

Oh yeah: “Lost,” for which Vaughan was a writer and producer for three seasons.

Well, that one turned out pretty well, so there’s even more reason to have high hopes for “Dome.”

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