Under the Dome: “Outbreak”

I don’t like making fun of Under the Dome any more than I like kicking puppies. Let’s face it, we’re all rooting for a horror and sci-fi series on network TV to be good. Therefore, when last night’s episode actually ended on a legitimate cliffhanger, and it managed a single moment of character development, myself and a lot of other people reacted as if we’d just heard that global warming had been reversed, there was peace in the Middle East, and free money was going to be delivered every Tuesday and Thursday. But was this episode actually any good? Or was it enough that it simply didn’t completely suck?

The episode started with a fair amount of potential. Angie, the girl Junior Rennie kidnapped and locked in his dad’s fallout shelter, busted a pipe which caused water to rise almost to her knees! On the other side of town, people have actually written on the side of the dome and are…throwing things at it? The world’s worst mob (seemingly a gang of extras who have not been given much direction) are then confronted by the world’s worst peacekeeper, Sheriff Linda, who tells them to go back to their homes peacefully as she pulls her gun on them. Things look bad until Big Jim Rennie appears and the mob of unruly extras, realizing that he’s an actual famous actor, disperse, mumbling “peas and carrots…peas and carrots…” all the way.

Then a plague breaks out for no good reason, and everyone collapses and gets taken to the hospital. There, Lesbian Mom #2 (Samantha Mathis) walks up to a nurse, says “Excuse me, I’m a physician…” and is instantly put in charge of the hospital, an act symbolized by granting her a stethoscope to drape around her neck in accepted ER fashion. Based on no tests whatsoever she decides that everyone has meningitis which, according to its Wikipedia page, can be cured by “antibiotics.” She then gives people “antibiotics” and later that day they all go home, cured. I’m mentioning the Wikipedia page since that seems to be all the research the show’s writers did and because they lifted the sentence on its symptoms verbatim.

Under the Dome Outbreak

During the “Outbreak” only two really stupid things happened, and for Under the Dome that’s a record. First, Julia Shumway, the world’s laziest reporter, decided that the chaos of a possible plague was a great time to confront Barbie about finding a map in his bag. She also interrogated the sick DJ Phil who seems to be connected to Barbie. DJ Phil was hallucinating but fortunately he was hallucinating in plot points which sent her to the town’s only cabin where she passed out from meningitis and was rescued by Barbie. This was all Very Stupid. Judging by online chatter, whereas most people hope that journalists and war correspondents the world over sleep safely at night, Julia Shumway has become the only member of the press corps whose death is deeply hoped for.

The other stupid thing was that when the outbreak was termed “maybe meningitis” there was a risk of patients getting out of the hospital and infecting other people. According to Wikipedia, this is a definite risk with meningitis which can be spread through saliva (and poop, although the writers chose not to go down that far more interesting road) and in order to secure the only door in the hospital, Junior Rennie is given a shotgun and told to keep everyone inside. If anyone asks questions he is to shoot into the ceiling. This seemed like a bad idea when they could have done something crazy like explained the situation to everyone and locked the doors, but forget about it Jake, it’s Under the Dome. Besides, Junior gives a confusing speech about “I believe in this town, and I believe in you,” and then he walks away which seems to make everyone…happy?

Under the Dome Outbreak

In the middle of all this, the two kids who have stereophonic seizures held hands, had a seizure, and recorded it on their phone. When they played it back they discovered that Scarecrow Joe is doing something creepy during the seizure. Although that “creepy” should be put in quotation marks since I’m not sure lifting bits from Paranormal Activity counts as creepy.

As the show ended, two things happened. One, was a bit of character development as Junior keeps getting rewarded for being a nice guy, even being deputized by Sheriff Linda. This seems to be a good idea given that he’s acted totally and completely helpful in this episode. However, the viewer knows that he has a girl locked up in a fallout shelter underground so it’s all very ominous.

Under the Dome Outbreak

Then the show managed to end on an actual cliffhanger, which seemed like a good thing, although the cliffhanger negated a far more interesting online theory that Angie is actually dead and Junior has been interacting with her corpse all along. Then again, it’s fine with me that the show’s writers are ignoring interesting plot twists just as long as they’re not completely sucking, which proves that I have either been completely defeated by this show, or have chosen to accept reality.

Under the Dome’s high concept doesn’t seem to be enough for the writers and they continue to pick up and put down plots and subplots like big dumb bears rooting through a picnic basket. In this episode alone there is a subplot about someone stealing all the medicine from the pharmacy (which is dispatched in a single commercial break), a diabetes subplot about Lesbian Mom #2, a flooding peril subplot, a plague outbreak plot which is dispensed with in a single episode, a third-grade schoolteacher who gives her life to save Sheriff Linda, and Barbie’s relationship with Julia’s husband is revealed. It turns out that we live in the 1950s and he is actually…an enforcer for a bookie there to collect her husband’s gambling debts. Sigh. And the tradition of Under the Dome having everyone over-explain everything continued with the amazing line, “I’m going to get you something to eat and then you’re going to eat it.”

Under the Dome Outbreak

And yet, this episode demonstrated a weak pulse which is immediate cause for celebration amongst those of us suffering through it (I really need this $20 a week). In part, this mild success could be attributed to a new director, Kari Skogland, although since she is the auteur responsible for Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return, maybe not. It was written by Peter Calloway who hasn’t been credited for an episode yet, so maybe it was him? Either way, it was some slight improvement if one considers being punched in the stomach a step up from being kicked in the nuts.

The biggest problem with Under the Dome is encapsulated in its voiceover at the start of the show. In the first place, it’s read by Julia Shumway, the least popular journalist ever in the history of journalism. Secondly, it says, “Now that we’re all trapped in the dome together, none of our secrets are safe.” And that’s the problem. The writers of this show firmly believe that the most interesting thing is its characters’ secrets when, in fact, on the big list of things to worry about when trapped under an impregnable dome, secrets usually come last after power, water, food, general survival, cops shooting each other, people going crazy from stress, and escape.

Under the Dome Outbreak

And yet the writers remain committed to the secrets. We’ve gotten to a point where if someone doesn’t pay lip service to being trapped under the dome in an episode then most viewers would forget about it. In this series so far we’ve seen near-riots, policemen murdered in front of crowds, fires break out, plagues break out, and none of those things seem to cause any fallout in the next episode. People just shrug and keep on worrying about their secrets, which turn out to be incredibly mundane things like gambling debts.

Next week’s episode is written by Brian K. Vaughn, the guy in charge of the show and a famous comic book writer, and so there is some hope that after two dire episodes things are turning around, but I continue to remember the Golden Rule: just because magazine writers say that television is in a new Golden Age, that doesn’t mean everything on it is golden.

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.


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