'Under the Dome' Has a Tense, Sci-Fi Message


In the sleepy Maine hamlet of Chester's Mill, Big Jim Rennie is the go-to, take-charge guy. That's great when he commandeers the radio station for life-saving warnings, not so much when he starts stockpiling fuel and guns.

The shady town councilman of "Under the Dome," portrayed by Dean Norris of "Breaking Bad," was inspired by Dick Cheney, and he likes to wheel and deal in dark hallways. When Rennie's chat with the local sheriff jumps right into "You threatening me?" mode, the B-movie party is just getting started.

CBS is taking a gamble on original summer content with its ambitious drama, a standalone series based on Stephen King's phone book-sized best-seller about a town that suddenly finds itself trapped under a transparent bug zapper.

Some critics called the book incisive and addictive, while others dismissed it as pulpy and juvenile. "Under the Dome" checks all those boxes in Monday's pilot episode.

CBS so far has filmed 13 episodes, which sounds more attainable than 1,074 pages. King fans who learned an unabridged lesson by reading "The Stand" to its infuriating end should relax on the couch this time around. That is, if they're up for some politics with their violence. It works on "The Walking Dead."

The dome's arrival, a protein shake of tornado-force winds, seismic shock and electromagnetic pulse, is bad news for the plants and buildings along its sizzling, shimmering perimeter, not to mention unlucky livestock with parts on both sides. (Consider yourself warned.)

Unfolding around the bubble's perimeter is an extended string of "it's some sort of force field!" epiphanies, which introduce us to some beloved King archetypes.

The grizzled lawman haunted by his ethical lapses. The college dropout surrendering to dark urges. The problem-solving teens lacking adult supervision. Sprinkle in some science fiction and a little gore to taste, and King has his recipe for Ecological Metaphor Stew.

Naturally, the panicked people of Chester's Mill keep running up against the barrier like terrier puppies with a new invisible fence. They gradually suss out that cars and planes smash against it like it's concrete, and sound can't pass through, either.

Neither can asthma medicine, fresh water or parents who went shopping one town over. Chester's Mill's Muslims, if there are any, could probably call one another without the NSA knowing.

Folks who were decent before the dome (or were they?) start turning on one another. Just like they did in "Needful Things." And in "The Stand." Remember what those people trapped in the store in "The Mist" did? And don't forget "The Tommyknockers," where anyone trying to leave or enter King's fictional town of Haven got a fatal nosebleed for their efforts.

If King keeps returning to his imploding community motif, it's probably because he excels at thinking of ways for mortals to violate one another. Originally slated for Showtime, "Dome" could get violent, but CBS might not choose to follow "The Following's" blood-soaked example.

Series developer Brian K. Vaughan, who wrote all 13 episodes with King, moved from writing comic books to writing three seasons of "Lost." Vaughan's professed love for dense but finite, three-act storytelling could have paired nicely with King's outsize tale, but the show is being planned as an ongoing series. Just in case.

As the first hour of "Under the Dome" winds down, the cameras retreat beyond the barrier to reveal another King standby: the shadowy government forces he likes to call the Dallas Police. Biohazard-suited Green Berets stream out of trucks. Men in suits whisper angrily to men with clipboards as black helicopters fill the sky.

Here's hoping King and Vaughn ignore the temptation to provide fresh oxygen to the people of Chester's Mill for too long. They have enough enemies.

A giant force field dome? Doesn't that sound like ...

--"Land of the Giants?" Yes. The 1968 episode "Ghost Town" had the castaways dealing with a force field and an empty, Earth-sized city.

--"Logan's Run"? Kind of. But you wanted to be inside that dome, because the world outside was in ruins.

--"Total Recall"? That's right, they needed a dome over the colony on Mars to keep the air in.

--"Babylon 5"? There are a lot of domed cities in that show. There really are a lot of domed cities in science fiction, period.

--"The Truman Show"? Indeed. But that dome doesn't hurt people, except poor deceived Jim Carrey.

--English class? Fredric Brown's famous 1944 short story "Arena" featured an invisible force field separating Carson, humanity's last hope for survival, from a murderous alien entity.

--"The Simpsons Movie"? Totally. The EPA and President Schwarzenegger quarantined Springfield under glass after Homer poisoned the water supply. "Dome" showrunner Neal Baer has said he plans to give "The Simpsons" a tip of the hat in the show, but still no word on any Spider-Pigs.

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