The central hook of so many Stephen King stories isn't so much a specific monster or evil force as it is the effect evil has on otherwise regular human beings. That's been especially clear in any story King has set in a tranquil small town, whether it's the classic Salem's Lot or the not-so-classic Needful Things, so it's not too surprising that one of King's most acclaimed latter day works would be a return to that world. When it was released in 2009, Under the Dome wasn't just a massive hit for King, but a work that struck a nerve in a way so few of his more recent books had. With its ability to transform into commentary on the mob mentality of the Tea Party movement, or the dangers of the Greenhouse Effect depending on how you read it, Under the Dome felt exciting in its nowness and the infusion of King's typically strong handle on small town life only added to that.
When word started circulating that Under the Dome wasn't just going to be adapted for tv, but adapted by Brian K. Vaughan, fandom was naturally abuzz with high expectations. King, of course, is nowhere near to adaptations, but few of his works have managed to be transformed into great television. While The Stand did well in its day as an epic miniseries, it now looks hopelessly dated and cheesy, and the long running Dead Zone wasn't exactly critically beloved. But with Vaughan's work on masterful comic series like Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina as well as his contributions to Lost, it seemed like if anyone could create a smart adaptation of a King work, it would be him. It didn't hurt that Under the Dome itself is such an easy fit for television, with its huge ensemble cast and high stakes.
Planned as a 13 episode standalone series with the possibility of being extended into a longer show, Under the Dome is CBS latest attempt at landing a drama hit on the critical level of Lost. Based on the pilot, they may just be on to something, though there's still room to grow. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame, Under the Dome certainly looks and feels the part, with better-than-average special effects (a bisected cow is the first and the most talked about, but a car crash later in the episode steals the spotlight), great casting and a menacing, tense tone that telegraphs the stakes to come well without feeling forced or clunky. Like Lost, Under the Dome begins with an insane disaster, in this case the sudden appearance of a dome that closes off the town of Chester's Mill from the outside world, sealing most of its inhabitants within while the army and the media gather around it, attempting to figure out what has happened.
The first episode features quite a few casualties, from the aforementioned cow to a plane crash to the death of what seemed to be a major character. Those of us who have read the book already know this is one of King's most grim and gristly works and that these deaths are nothing compared to what follows, but Oplev does an excellent job driving home how dark this can get. Not that the book necessarily gives you an edge, as Vaughan and showrunner Neal Baer have already taken some liberties with the source material, particularly in regards to semi-protagonist Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike Vogel), who we witness burying a body and making a shady phone call before he morphs into a savvy good guy after the dome falls.
Oplev and Vaughan also establish the rivalries and factions pretty early on, as Barbie runs into and nearly gets into a fight with Junior Rennie (Alexander Koch), the creepy, unhinged son of small town big gun, Big Jim Rennie (Dean Norris). Norris's Big Jim is rightfully being held up as the breakout performance on the show; a departure from his more good humored approach in Breaking Bad, Norris plays Big Jim as the kind of small town huckster who is happy being a big fish in a small pond and can turn the charm on and off as needed. Even Big Jim's "enemies" come off as mostly ineffectual in contrast to his subtle control of the town, with Chief Duke Perkins (Jeff Fahey) looking exasperated in his efforts to keep the town safe, no matter the cost while local journalist Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre) tries to matter to a populace that at one point flat out tells her "You know everyone just reads the internet."
And because this is King, there's also a subplot involving kids having seizures while delivering cryptic messages, a big city couple out of their element (in this case, they're a lesbian couple with one of those seizure kids) and the promise of stranger happenings. As pilots go, Under the Dome is stacked full of characters and mostly handles that well, pushing pieces into place, giving the viewer just enough information to form biases and suspicions. The only real negative right out of the gate is that the introduction of the dome is extremely sudden and had the premier spent more time with the townspeople before that event, it would be easier to care about the characters and their existing relationships. Even so, Under the Dome provides plenty of reasons to stick around and if it can consistently keep the tension flowing in a natural way without getting too bogged down in ultimately trivial details– as Lost fell prey to– it will have the summer television slate locked down, which is fantastic news for everyone who was worried about how a work like this would translate to the screen and even better news for everyone who was hoping something less artificial than Whodunnit would come around.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at&n
bsp;Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.