Monday night we were treated to the penultimate episode of Under the Dome, and a very special episode it was. Just kidding! There wasn’t a thing special about it, but it did have two big words in the title: “Exigent Circumstances,” which means that law enforcement can enter a barn without a search warrant, or “Oh hai! This is a clumsy metaphor for post-9/11 America.” But while the writers may call it “Exigent Circumstances” I like to call this episode “The Great Julia Shumway Heist.” And while most episodes of Under the Dome are checklists of what writers should never, ever, ever, under any circumstances do, this episode actually teaches a lesson about something writers should do more often.
Watching “Exigent Circumstances” was like stumbling around a Jack-in-the-Box shop in the middle of the night without a flashlight because everything just kept popping up out of the blue (something writers should never do: totally clumsy metaphors!). Suddenly Dodee can hear military broadcasts! For some reason the military has drones (so timely!), and they’re looking for Dale Barbie (?), and they know about the mini-dome and its egg (??), and they saw Big Jim murder the Reverend way back in episode four!
Suddenly the town of Chester’s Mill decides that Big Jim should search their houses for Barbie! Out of nowhere Carolyn, the surviving lesbian mom, emerges from her bedroom because she’s finally been given a character trait which, unfortunately, is annoying lawyer! For no good reason she tries to cite legal precedent to keep Big Jim and random red shirts from opening her barn! Inexplicably, joke’s on Big Jim because the kids have already moved the mini-dome (on a little red wagon and wrapped in a quilt, making it the adorable ET of Under the Dome) so Big Jim settles for imprisoning the kids and snarling threats that serve no discernible purpose.
Meanwhile, Julia Shumway continues to languish in a mini-coma, and the only nurse in town is getting really sick of blowing out her hair every day. Especially since the second she wakes up and says that Maxine shot her and not Barbie she’s going to get shot right in her pretty little hairdo. Barbie cannot let this stand because he is in lurve and so he and Angie plan The Great Julia Shumway Heist. It is a plan that has many parts:
Part 1: Barbie and Angie smoke a cigarette in the bushes.
Part 2: Barbie and Angie break into the clinic and find Julia’s room.
Part 3: Angie dresses as a candy striper and distracts Junior (who is guarding Julia) by taking him to another room to “talk” which is confusing because what she really wants to do is make out. I now understand Junior’s confusion previously when she said she wanted to “make scrambled eggs” and he thought she wanted to have sex.
Part 4: While Angie plays tonsil hockey with Junior, Barbie puts Julia’s unconscious body on a cart.
Part 5: Barbie pushes Julia’s cart to a stolen ambulance.
Part 6: Junior smells cigarettes on Angie’s breath and realizes that she only smokes with Barbie and runs after him.
Part 7: Angie drives away with Julia’s body in the ambulance while Barbie fights Junior like a man.
Part 8: Barbie gets arrested by Sheriff Linda.
Part 9: Angie drives around in the ambulance listening to the radio.
Part 10: Angie hides the ambulance behind a billboard then pushes Julia’s cart all the way back to the clinic and hides Julia in a storage room.
Part 11: Angie gives Julia a volumizing conditioner treatment to restore any body and bounce lost in the heist.
It was around the time that Sheriff Linda tells Big Jim that she has “put out an all points bulletin” on Angie (to whom? She’s the only law enforcement officer left except for Junior) that I had to ask myself, “Why am I watching this show?” Admittedly, Tor pays me $20 for each write-up, but I could make that same amount of money selling crack to school children, and at least that would allow me to retain some measure of dignity. This led to the big question that every recapper must eventually confront: am I hate-watching Under the Dome?
The only other show I watch regularly right now is The Real Housewives of Wherever and I truly love it. As long as it’s not the New Jersey housewives, I am content to sit in front of episodes I’ve seen a half-dozen times and soak them in like Bible lessons. But while I watch Real Housewives because I hate the real housewives, I am not hate-watching The Real Housewives. I’m watching because I can’t wait to see what horrible, shallow, self-centered, entitled, out-of-touch, mean, petty, vindictive thing these women (and their awful Hair Club for Men husbands) do next.
But am I hate-watching Under the Dome? From its lazy writing, to its moronic broadcasting of every plot point, to its half-baked motivations, under-developed characterizations, and random pick-a-number plot twists, there is a lot to hate on this show. The characters feel like sock puppets and the excitement level never rises above “tepid” no matter how hard the producers try to lash it into a frenzy with music borrowed from LOST, but there is one thing holding this show together and that is Dean Norris’s Big Jim Rennie. And he’s why I’m still watching.
Norris is one of the leads on Breaking Bad, this year’s “Best Show Ever in the History of Television” and that means he’s eminently watchable. Sure the Under the Dome writers give him lines with all the rhythm and beauty of a cartload of logs being thrown down metal stairs, and of course the costume designers put him in a navy blue shirt and matching navy blue jeans so that he looks like a giant, angry blueberry in this latest episode, but Norris manages to be fascinating because he keeps doing things.
He shoots people he doesn’t get along with, he threatens lesbians and children, he tramples civil rights, he swigs whiskey out of the bottle and blows up trucks, he raises lynch mobs at the drop of a hat, he lies, he steals, he hates his son, he hisses “Barbie!” to himself like a moustache-twirling Victorian melodrama villain. In other words, he’d fit right in on The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Imagine The Real Housewives of Under the Dome. Linda would throw wine in Julia Shumway’s face, Maxine would invite Dodee to her gym and make her cry, then she’d show up to shoot Julia and decide to rip out her hair extensions instead, Carolyn would do yoga and say nasty things about Big Jim Rennie over chardonnay in Rose’s Cafe, Junior would have a substance abuse problem, and Alice would be a plastic surgeon filing a lawsuit against the contractors who messed up the water feature in her new home. In other words, they would all be doing things. Hateful things, shallow things, petty things, but interesting things.
Over the past few years, mass entertainment has decided en masse that nothing is more important than likeable and relatable characters. You hear it in script notes, you hear it in editorial notes, you hear it in reviews, you hear it in $350/day scriptwriting seminars, you hear it in creative writing workshops. But Under the Dome has provided a valuable service and shown just how wrong that seemingly iron-clad rule is.
Julia Shumway is likeable, Dale Barbie is likeable, Norrie and Scarecrow Joe are relatable, and every single one of them are terminally boring. And deep down, we know it. It’s not a coincidence that most of the “Best Shows Ever in the History of Television” like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Dexter, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, and Mad Men center around deeply unlikeable, deeply unrelatable lead characters.
I watch Real Housewives not because I like them, but because they do messed up stuff. That’s the same reason I was a loyal Cops viewer for years, the same reason why I watched The Real World, and why I loved Celebrity Survivor. Messed-up, hateful, evil, selfish people who actually go out into the world and try to bend it to their will are endlessly fascinating. They’re interesting.
If I want to see a show about someone who acts like me I’ll look in a mirror and talk to myself. I pick my movies and my TV because I want to see things happen. And the people most likely to make things happen are the interesting people. And the most interesting people are usually the bad guys (and gals) because everyone is so worried about the main characters being likeable and relatable that they’re so busy removing everything interesting about them that they leave the bad guys alone. That’s why people loved Loki in Thor, or the Joker in The Dark Knight, or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Or even Dean Norris in Under the Dome.
It’s a testament to the strength of this urge that all it’s taken is one interesting character to keep me watching. One interesting character to make Under the Dome something more than a 50-minute slog through a bleak wasteland of hair care products and clumsy exposition. It’s a note that writers don’t get nearly enough, but it’s a note that would improve a lot of the entertainment that’s out there today: why don’t you make your main character more evil?
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.