“Stop bugging me, dome!” the crazy guy freaking out on drugs screams in episode 9 of Under the Dome, and I hear you, buddy. But despite Time Warner disconnecting CBS to protect millions of viewers from all things Dome, the show has proven to be—as Julia Shumway intones in her best Acting Voice at the start of every episode—“Invisible, indestructible, inescapable.” I can’t quit you, dome, so I’m back for my $20 and my Under the Dome recaps. Because if there’s one thing the dome does, it brings people together. Like a really inefficient dating service.
Watching four episodes of Under the Dome back-to-back is an experience in what scientists call stasis. While some things have changed (A baby is born! A lesbian has died! Someone opened a fight club in ye olde cement factory!) none of them really make any difference whatsoever, and the important things are all still the same. Chester’s Mill is still the most heavily armed town with the most emotionally resilient residents in North America, and they all still love to vomit exposition all over each other at every opportunity. Someone can’t fall off a boat and start drowning without outlining exactly the threat of drowning they face, how this is exponentially increased by the fact that their hands are tied together, and then specifically naming the type of help they’d like to receive.
To hit the high points of the episodes I choked down back-to-back:
A character we’ve never seen before has a baby. Farmer Ollie, a stuffed rat that Big Jim Rennie loved as a boy so much that he turned into a real human being just like in The Velveteen Rabbit, tries to hoard water. The world’s worst street barricade stops a car which is then…gas jacked? The word “townie” gets used a lot but I don’t quite think it means what they think it means. And Miguel Sapochnik demonstrates that he is the best director this show has had yet, thereby guaranteeing the producers won’t hire him anymore. Best line? Junior ninjas up to Angie and whispers the title of his favorite country western song in her ear, “I Just Wanted to Tell You That I Know I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
“Thicker Than Water”
Big Jim decides to take Farmer Rat’s water by “eminent domain” causing Barbie to interrupt his explanation saying “I know what that is,” marking the first time in Under the Dome history a character has suffered exposition interruptus. A highly metaphorical snow globe collection is shattered but Norrie just…can’t…break LA and then she experiences catharsis, but not before various people are blamed for the death of Alice (one of her moms). People say “mini-dome” far too much. We get another lecture on Chester’s Mill’s underground water table; and there’s a joyless action scene at the conclusion of which Big Jim actually snarls “Dammit, Barbie” to himself, which has to be the show’s most GIF-able moment to date. Best line? Julia Shumway musing over the death of spouse Alice, “Strange, huh? Alice dies, Harriet has a baby? Same house, same day. Circle of life.” Cue Elton John! “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!”
“The Fourth Hand”
After seeing the cow sliced in half on every episode opener, they have officially run that once-clever joke into the ground. The writers, realizing they now have to stretch Under the Dome to a second—and possibly third—season, introduce Maxine, a woman with a man’s name so we know she’s competent and who has also been hiding in Chester’s Mill all along. She controls an empire based on her super-drug, Rapture, which is cooked with “secret herbs and spices” making her the Colonel Sanders of meth. Best line? Linda: “The preacher sold you drugs?” Junkie: “Yes, right there in the funeral home. I need more!”
“Let the Games Begin”
I think future generations will record the moment when Maxine reveals that she has started a secret Thunderdome in ye olde cement factory where the entire town is punching each other in the face for soft drinks and salt while she has been living in a mansion on a nearby island with her parents—and no one knew about it—as the moment this show officially jumped the shark. To be more precise, it’s the moment when she shows her Sam’s Wholesale Fight Club Discount Warehouse to Barbie and says, “Welcome to my brave new world,” as the exact second it actually leapt. Best line? Angie: “You said yesterday that something bigger was happening, something that connects all of us?” Junior: “Yeah, so?”
On the one hand, at least things are actually happening now. For most shows, having an actual plot occurring 10 episodes in would not be an achievement but this is Under the Dome we’re talking about, the slow learner of television drama. Even though it’s taken 7 episodes, Scarecrow Joe and Norrie have decided to locate the center of the dome and there they find a small dome with a black egg inside, leading everyone to call it “mini-dome” as in “Mini-Me” despite the fact that it is clearly a sphere and is definitely not played by Verne Troyer. But that’s exactly what you’d expect from the terrible people who populate Chester’s Mill, a town that attracts the worst people ever.
Take Linda. She’s a cop, but her boss and Big Jim Rennie have been conducting a whole illegal drug trade under her nose, the Reverend she has known “her entire life” has been out of his mind on drugs that he sells out of his funeral home, half the town is running up gambling debts and are getting murdered by enforcers like Barbie, the town whore has secretly bought a mansion and has raised her daughter to be an evil femme fatale who runs a drug empire from a nearby island, and Linda hasn’t had a clue about any of it. That means she fits right in with Julia Shumway who runs the town paper and hasn’t uncovered any of this either. Then again, Julia has apparently given up on publishing a paper or serving in any kind of news gathering capacity in the brief 9 days the dome has been over Chester’s Mill, making her a truly terrible journalist. Then again, the Sheriff kept the key to the safety deposit box that contained all his secrets inside his hat, making him a terrible conspirator, and Junior Rennie’s crazy dead mom has a studio full of really awful paintings that clearly mark her as a terrible artist. You know how New York City attracts the best writers, and LA attracts the best actors, and Chicago attracts the best This American Life correspondents? Well, Chester’s Mill is like that, only the opposite. Maybe the dome was dropped to keep its residents from voting?
They also say terrible things. At one point Farmer Rat (aka Farmer Ollie) sneers, “They’re going to drum you out faster than a knife fight in a phone booth.” What does that even mean? Clearly Under the Dome operates in an unreal world where people neither speak, nor think, rationally. In episodes 7 and 8 when Big Jim wants to get the water from Farmer Rat, his reason isn’t so that people don’t die of dehydration or poor sanitation, but because, “You know the day is coming when none of us are going to get any food without taking it out of the ground.” Later, Barbie also makes the same point, “We get Ollie, we get the well, and everyone starts growing food again.” They do know that it takes a year for a harvest to grow, right? And they have been under the dome for only 9 days? There might actually be issues more pressing (sanitation, pollution, plumbing, medical care, food, finding the source of the dome, public safety, electricity) than next year’s sorghum crop?
Then again, forgetting things seems to be a theme on this show. Dodee, the clever Asian lady at the radio station, has been missing for about 3 episodes. The lady who had the baby in episode 7 is never mentioned again, nor is her baby. The lesbian who loses her spouse disappears as soon as she’s not necessary to the plot (instantly). DJ Phil is shot in episode 8 and barely mentioned again in episodes 9 or 10. Contact with the outside world has not been remarked on for 4 episodes. Angie has forgotten she is scared of Junior because she spends a lot of time with him all of a sudden in just 3 episodes. And no one seems to remember that the town whore who caused a massive scandal turned into Mare Winningham and now lives in a giant mansion just off the coast where she is raising her evil, drug-empire-owning daughter.
About that daughter: some might take issue with the sudden appearance of Maxine who has apparently been hiding in Chester’s Mill for 9 days totally undetected, but I think it fits right into Under the Dome’s world-building. Given the large number of citizens who show up to be bullet-stopping red shirts on episodes 7 and 8, or the others who show up whenever a crowd is needed for some rioting or gas jacking, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the Harlem Globetrotters are hidden somewhere inside the ever-expanding Chester’s Mill dome. (It wouldn’t be the first time).
The actors have to take part of the blame for this. Dean Norris has taken to racing through his lines as if he’s embarrassed by them, and Julia Shumway brings all the depth of a Prell commercial to her big emotional scenes with Barbie. The teen actors have totally and completely given up on even pretending to act, and while there may have been televised Senate testimony that was more awkward, stilted, and emotionless, I’m having a hard time thinking of any show in the history of television where dialogue is delivered this blandly. Then again, I can’t blame the actors, because they’re as trapped by the show as we—or the residents of Chester’s Mill—are. The real villains are the writers.
Have you ever had one of those nightmares in which the entire world is fabricated just for you and when you’re not around all the other people cease to exist? That’s how Under the Dome works. When a main character isn’t around all the other characters just go into sleep mode, showing up only when they’re needed for a crowd scene or to be a red shirt. There is never any sense that these are real people in a real situation. They don’t act as if they are a newspaper editor, a debt collector, a town councilman, or a teenager trapped underneath a dome. Instead they act like a romantic lead, a leading man, a bad guy, and a couple of meddling kids. It’s actually becoming more and more obvious that Under the Dome is actually a Sweded version of LOST, which isn’t any kind of grand insight. The producers work the same eerie rising violin string sound cue harder than a knife fight in a telephone booth, making the comparison as inescapable as the dome.
The parallels are obvious, with Big Jim standing in for Locke, Barbie’s five o’clock shadow standing in for Jack Shephard’s five o’clock shadow, Julia Shumway sporting the same basic look as Kate Austen, and the mini-dome standing in for the hatch. But the mini-dome may also give a hint as to how this show is going to bring everything together. With its clean lines and ergonomic design, it’s clear that the black egg inside the mini-dome is Microsoft’s new iPhone competitor, the successor to the Windows Phone 8. Microsoft product placement is so ubiquitous on this show that there is no other possible solution that could satisfy on any level and so I’m fully prepared for the moment when the mini-dome finally opens and Joe picks up the black egg and reverently intones, “It’s got a retina-display touch screen and 19 Gigs of memory…” Because, honestly, that’s the only explanation that makes sense anymore.
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.