Everyone, myself included, was super-excited about the first episode of Under the Dome. There were special effects! A budget! Bisected bovines! Hank from Breaking Bad! Changes had been made to Stephen King’s book, but they seemed to be good changes! And it’s only going to be 13 episodes long so things have to happen, unlike a lot of TV soap operas that get padded out with plenty of wheel-spinning. Episode two, “The Fire,” comes along and blows those expectations out of the water, because it was nothing but wheel-spinning, bad writing, and poor character development. But hey, the two stoner kids got a dog, so it can’t be all bad. Also, want to know which character dies in which episode? Thanks to CBS, the entire list is accidentally available online over at IMDB.
There was a sinking feeling with this episode as one network TV cliché after another banged me over the head like a hammer pounding in a nail. Soldier returned from Iraq shouting in his sleep? Check. Ominous music on overdrive? Check. A teenager has hidden powers of geometry? Check. Another teenager is a shoplifter? Check. Is there a slow motion fireball? Check.
But the biggest sin is that nothing happened in this episode. A house burned down, but we have no idea of the importance (or not) of said house. It’s sad that Deputy Esquivel inherits a new house and watches it burn down 10 minutes later, but that doesn’t really add a lot to the story. Oh, and some Very Important Papers are inside. We know this because they are in an envelope virtually labeled Very Important Papers, and people talk about them being Very Important, but for all I know it’s a copy of Duke’s college transcript. Actually, I read the book and so I know why they’re important but in the context of the series it’s a big “So what?”
Actually, there’s a second TV sin committed in this episode: only the main characters are smart. Julia Shumway and Dale Barbara are the only active characters on screen, and everyone else just stands around like a bunch of dummies until they show up. The seemingly intelligent radio station DJs have never considered reporting the news they’re discovering with their magical radio receiver, instead sticking to their regular rotation of rock, until Julia shows up and stages the lamest radio station takeover in TV history. The only bonus is that it forces the DJ to say the name of the show (“Your only source of news from…under the dome.”)
Later, when Duke’s house is on fire everyone seems happy to watch it burn, having never encountered a fire before in their lives. It’s not until Barbie shows up and tells them what to do that it occurs to them to try to put it out. Then again, isn’t that just like real life? We just stand around waiting for the cool person to tell us what to do? How do we know Barbie is cool? Because earlier in the episode, brainiac geometry teen Joe McAlister actually says that he can tell Barbie isn’t from Chester’s Mill because, “he’s cool.” We also see him buying three packs of cigarettes a few minutes later and even though he says he’s eventually going to use them as prison barter, I think it’s because he wants to let us know that he’s three times cooler than we thought he was.
I’m not sure where Joe gets off claiming that no one in Chester’s Mill is cool, because Dean Norris as Big Jim Rennie is quickly becoming the only interesting character on the show and he wears an awesome Members Only jacket. He is consistently the only character to have conflicted motivations, the only character who keeps doing good while pursuing his secret evil plan to become the propane king of Chester’s Mill, and the only character who actually invests his line readings with any kind of nuance. His one sin seems to be relying on the deeply incompetent Ned Bellamy (playing the reverend) to be his accomplice.
A lot can be forgiven seeing that this is network TV, but this almost feels like network TV from another era. Compared to shows like Buffy, Lost, and Fringe this feels like a giant step backwards. There’s something retro about the entire show, from the writing to the look, that makes it feel like something you’d find on Fox in, say, 1999 or 2000. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but this episode was as bland as its title.
That said, there were two nice moments, both courtesy of the stoner teens, Joe McAlister and his buddy Ben. In the first, Ben spray paints a door on the side of the dome, which is a nice moment. In the second, they find a guy whose legs have been cut off when the dome came down, leaving his feet and his dog on one side of the dome and a long blood trail from where he dragged himself off on the other. It’s a neat moment, but like the bisected cow in episode one, how many more of these are they going to be able to do before it starts feeling like old hat? The same with the ending: how many episodes are going to close with a member of law enforcement receiving a surprise fatal wound to the chest?
In terms of changes from the book, which were great in episode one, they seem to be worse this week. In the novel, there’s a good idea of what’s going on outside the dome which adds drama to life inside the dome, but in the TV series there is no communication with outside. Not even a note pressed to the invisible barrier, thus eliminating that possible source of tension and conflict. Also, in the book the machinations of Big Jim Rennie maneuvering the two remaining members of town council into rubber stamping his authority are a lot of fun, and really show off his ability to manipulate people, and the buffaloed town council members are two of the book’s most tragic figures. They’re dispensed with in the TV series when Rennie snaps, “I’m the only town councilman left in Chester’s Mill.” Add to that the removal of another of the book’s most sympathetic characters, Duke’s widow, Brenda, and you’ve got deviations this week that seem to detract more than anything.
It’s still early days yet, but this episode was a bummer from its inconsistent characterization (teen Mackenzie Lintz bawls “We’re all going to die in here,” before the commercial break, then afterwards she snaps sarcastically, “So now the sky is falling?” when someone agrees with her sentiment) to its reliance on lazy TV clichés and gags that we already saw in episode one. I’m not sure where this is going, but I’m still willing to wait it out. This episode, however, was just a bunch of wheel-spinning.
Oh, wait, actually I know exactly where this is going. IMDB lists the number of episodes each character appears in, thus giving us a good idea of who’s going to die and when. Go on over and take a look yourself. Seeing some of the upcoming deaths actually made me more interested to see the next episode than anything on tonight’s installment.
Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.