Steven Spielberg's summer-movie magic meets Stephen King's chills
"Under the Dome" feels like summer, in the best possible way.
Not in the withered way so much television feels like summer, as if the heat has blanched and sapped away any motivation or creativity, but like summer used to feel at the movies: With school out of session, and even the grown-ups taking a couple weeks off, it was finally time to let your daydreams run wild. Summer was the season of "Jaws," "E.T.," and Indiana Jones.
Many of our happiest summer afternoons came courtesy of Steven Spielberg, who produces "Under the Dome" alongside Stephen King, the author of the book of the same name. When arguably the biggest names in film and books combine their talents, you might worry they would choke on the thin, muggy air of high expectations. But instead they soar, with one self-impose cconstraint.
That giant impregnable dome encircles the small town of Chester's Mill in the 13-episode series' premiere, airing Monday on CBS. And though it traps compelling townsfolk inside, it sets imaginations free.
It's thrilling to watch the show lay out the rules of the dome. People can see through it, but not hear. It demolishes anything that slams into it, and gives anyone who touches it a mild shock. (Some people fare worse.) It is not nice to cows.
With its collection of mysterious characters and grand, overriding mystery, "Under the Dome" feels more like the early "Lost" than any of the scores of overcomplicated knockoffs that have followed that ABC series. One reason is "Lost" veteran and self-proclaimed King obsessive Brian K. Vaughn, who developed "Under the Dome" for television. He heads the show with Neal Baer.
Vaughn is a master of taking a simple, intriguing idea and imagining its wide-ranging effects. His brilliant comic book "Y: The Last Man" imagined every male on earth dying, except for an amateur magician and his monkey. The lack of testosterone transforms the world into a place where Democrats ruled Congress, Israel became an instant military superpower, and some of our best rock bands suddenly disappeared.
"Under the Dome" has a similarly straightforward concept, and one that offers at least as much storytelling potential. Lucky for us, Chester's Mill happens to be populated with great actors.
Mike Vogel, of "Cloverfield," and "Bates Motel," stars as a nice, reliable guy who has just buried a body – and wants to flee. "Lost" alum Jeff Fahey plays the town's beloved sheriff, who has a problematic heart. Britt Robertson is a small-town girl afraid she'll never get out of this town – even pre-dome. A possessive boyfriend played by Alexander Koch isn't helping matters. Natalie Martinez is a deputy who, wouldn't you, know it, is in love with a guy on the other side of the dome. "Breaking Bad" vet Dean Norris plays an Alpha male politician with an only initially surprising connection to another character. And Rachelle Lefevre is great as a local reporter getting the story of a lifetime – even as she misses out on the story of her life.
Koch's character, the kind of hormonal maniac that King does so well, is the only one in "Under the Dome" who feels a little false. His transformation from decent guy to monster is a bit fast. Then again, the best horror movie villains are always the people reacting to the horror, not the sources of it. His storyline, which we're confident will sort itself out, lets "Under the Dome" make some intriguing observations about patriarchy and sexism.
It just so happens that the dome lends itself to other allegories, as well. (You get the feeling that Maureen Dowd is already working on a crackling good column about how NSA spying places us all "Under the Dome.") Yes, Chester's Mill is a microcosm of America at large, but come on, it's hot outside: We'll let the deeper ideas sneak into our brains while we gape at that poor cow. "Under the Dome" lets us draw as much or as little social commentary as we want.
What have we done to deserve a show this entertaining, especially in summer? "Under the Dome" would have been a great fit for Showtime, where it was originally developed. But it's even better to see it on CBS, a network with a strict adherence to procedurals and sitcoms. The network deserves credit for going outside its programming dome.
The show will air until September, but CBS is open to bringing it back, year after year, if it scores in the ratings. For the good of TV, can we let the dome hold us captive?