By this week’s episode, Under the Dome is one badly rendered CGI minotaur away from being a SyFy original movie, only longer and with Dean Norris. I wrote that sentence to express my dismay with this show in an amusing way so that I can register my dislike but not seem humorless or grouchy. And I wrote that sentence because, like the residents of Chester’s Mill, I now feel a need to explain everything I say as obviously as possible, usually in the same line of dialogue. “Pass the ketchup, because I need ketchup to put on my fries because I like them better that way.” But despite this show’s dependence on stating the obvious, there are still some compelling mysteries. One that has been haunting viewers since the first episode is, “Can you make Junior drink his milk?” In this episode we finally learned the answer: NO, YOU CAN’T MAKE JUNIOR DRINK HIS MILK!!! Also, the basic principles of journalism, same-sex adoption, and the Sherman Antitrust Act are all explained for you.
This week sees the show almost get interesting with a tag team swap that sees Julia Shumway paired up with Junior Rennie and striking a lot of matches, while Dale Barbie goes on a mission with Big Jim Rennie and learns the secret behind his nickname. This nearly generates some friction since these pairings never happen in the book, but ultimately they fizzle out in a haze of bad writing in which characters are constantly saying something and then explaining it.
“Where’s Junior off to in such a hurry?”
“I don’t know, but he’s the town councilman’s son. If anyone has the inside scoop maybe it’s him.”
“I’m a journalist. I’ve got to find out everything I can about this dome, so me, you, and everyone can get out of here as soon as possible.”
Thanks! It’s getting to the point where it feels like some kind of call and response audience participation game.
“I made you some eggs.”
Audience: Why did you make her some eggs?
“I figured you could use the protein.”
Also, requiring lots of explanation this episode is the fact that an African-American lesbian has adopted a white girl with a bad attitude and a large forehead. Said teenager (Norrie—is it technically child abuse to name your daughter Norrie?) is running around town looking for a place to recharge her phone because “I can get superbitchy without my tunes.” She comes across Scarecrow Joe, the local teen who knows geometry, and the two bond as he describes the plot of Return of the Jedi to her. I call heavy-handed foreshadowing. Clearly this show will end when it is revealed that the Empire has sealed off Chester’s Mill in an attempt to exterminate a rare breed of burrowing Ewoks who call it their home.
Meanwhile, Norrie and Scarecrow Joe are bonding over how bad the scrambled egg wraps are at Whole Foods while her African-American mom, Carolyn, is encountering homophobia AND racism everywhere she goes in Chester’s Mill, requiring her to explain the long march to equality that has allowed she and her partner to adopt a little white girl. This is a perfect example of what this show is getting wrong: long explanation of civil rights, no explanation about where Norrie’s other mother is for the entire episode. Did she turn invisible? Get bisected by a late-arriving section of the dome? Was she imaginary in the first place?
In that same vein, while Under the Dome spends a lot of time and effort explaining the Sherman Antitrust Act (in a sure-to-become-famous Sherman Antitrust Act burn), explaining why teens show up at an unsupervised house to party (“The music they play on WYBS is, like, totally schizo.”), explaining why Julia Shumway ended up in Chester’s Mill and not as a highly-paid Pantene spokes model, and explaining why Big Jim is called Big Jim, they spend zero time explaining anything we actually want answers to. How much land does the dome cover? Are people running out of food? How come so many houses have electricity via generator but no one spends any time nursing generators, which are surely one of the balkiest pieces of machinery on the planet? How is there radio reception but no cell phone signals? Why isn’t anyone trying to communicate with friends and family outside the dome? Are the military ever going to communicate with the people inside the dome? Why is everyone so calm about the dome? How come the diner isn’t out of ketchup yet? Why do the teens keep calling generators “gennies”?
One of the things that made King’s book readable was his attention to the facts of life inside the dome. Fuel, food, light, and heat were all priorities. Atmospheric pollution was a big problem since particulates in the air couldn’t escape the dome and were trapped inside. People were full of conspiracy theories as to where the dome came from. Folks were constantly thinking up ways to bust through the dome. Other people were trying to profit off living under the dome. But on the TV series, no one seems to care much about the dome.
Deputy Paul says that the dome is making him crazy, then he grabs a bag and a rifle and runs for…we’re not quite sure what his plan is except that he keeps saying, “I don’t want to hurt anyone else,” before grabbing his gun and firing wildly at the people chasing him—clearly demonstrating that maybe, deep down, he might actually want to hurt someone else. Then Junior Rennie also says “The dome is making people crazy” and he goes into some laboriously explained tunnels underneath a concrete factory and punches the dome a lot. As an escape tactic it is definitely something that no one has thought of yet, but punching the dome into submission doesn’t seem to work.
Dean Norris is fantastic as Big Jim Rennie and probably the only reason to keep watching this show, but he’s not doing anyone any favors by being so good. In this episode, he and Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre) give back-to-back monologues about their pasts. Both monologues are equally nonsensical (she is in Chester’s Mill because Chicago politics, he is called Big Jim because shattered teenager pelvis) but Dean Norris delivers his like there is no tomorrow and while I didn’t understand the words coming out of his mouth, they were delivered with watchable gusto. Rachelle Lefevre on the other hand seemed to be talking about politics or maybe it was the benefits of new Pro-V technology developed in the Pantene lab to increase bounce and reduce flyaway hair.
The behind-the-camera talent seem to be making odd choices, too. In this episode, director Paul Edwards (most famous for being the cinematographer on the Jet Li vs. Billy Blanks martial arts movie The Master) makes the scenes as short as possible and they all feel like they were edited pretty much at random. A quick scene of deputy Linda Esquivel encountering a wild pig is inserted for no good reason, and it lasts less than 15 seconds. Another scene is dropped in showing Julia Shumway climbing around darkened tunnels for 10 seconds. One scene ends inconclusively when Junior Rennie puts on his backpack. None of this creates any kind of tension, rhythm, or drama unless you find the idea that Chester’s Mill’s bacon shortage might soon be solved by wild pig hunts compelling, or if Junior’s backpack is, for you, an emotionally charged object.
To the show’s credit, the depiction of teenagers as annoying robots who awkwardly drop clunky made-up slang at regular intervals is taken right from Stephen King’s book, and to their credit the teens get the best line of the episode at a skate party (“Ride that dome!”), but otherwise, Under the Dome is rapidly divorcing itself from reality and becoming a cheap knock-off of Lost mixed with the last season of Dawson’s Creek set in a town that no one can leave. When the most dramatic moment of a TV show is Junior Rennie pouring his glass of milk INTO THE SINK then you get the feeling that we might all be in trouble here.
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.