CBS, the network your grandparents fall asleep to, has been a ratings juggernaut for over a decade. And except for fans of The Big Bang Theory, this might come as news to anyone under the age of 40. CBS excels in baby boomer targeting–producing the kind of police and legal procedurals that haven’t deviated from a template developed decades ago. Their sitcoms are similarly banal, relying on the traditional 3-camera, studio audience based, family comedy that most younger viewers have been ignoring for awhile. Although they occasionally produce a hit that is also a critical favorite (such as The Good Wife), the bread and butter of the network is NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: Knoxville, and NCIS: Quad Cities. If it ain’t broke.
But in a pique of originality, CBS decided to get on the Lost-bandwagon that proved so reliable for shows like Heroes and V: high-concept, hour long sci-fi programming. The gamble has paid off, and Under The Dome is a #1 hit, according to Nielsen. The show is based on a Stephen King novel of the same name, and enters the pantheon of questionable television translations of King’s work. The show is also being distributed by Amazon’s video service, proving that, like getting a text from your grandmother, even CBS is capable of adaptation.
Here’s the premise: someone or something drops a dome on the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine. And the town is under it. Hence the title. There are several initial casualties, including a cow (now two cows) and a truck barreling unknowingly towards the invisible barrier. The drama is two-fold—figuring out what the dome is and how it got there, and how the town reacts to being sealed in together. Secrets are revealed in the hot-house climate of being trapped with friends and neighbors in a crisis, giving the show a Twilight Zone-like quality, such as the famous episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Stephen King has always reveled in exposing isolated small towns as hotbeds of psychopaths, wife-beaters, and religious fanatics, and Under the Dome is no exception. The show’s initials episodes have an almost frenzied quality–without giving too much away, we see latent psychopaths bloom, fires burn, epidemics, power struggles, corpses, etc. And we’re only four episodes in.
The show is a mixed bag–the pacing is frantic, with a conflict/resolution cycle that makes it seem that the show can’t quite commit to being truly serialized. It makes me long for the first season of Lost which excelled at a slow-burn of mystery and dread. But the central premise is undeniably compelling and even when I watch in exasperation, I patiently wait for the next episode. The performances also run the gambit. At one end of the spectrum is Dean Norris (of Breaking Bad) as ‘Big Jim’ Remmie, elevating the material as best he can; at the other end is his son Junior, played by Alexander Koch. Koch is an undeniably handsome face on an undeniably awful performance. But the writing is helping him much either.
I mentioned The Twilight Zone as a touchstone for the show, but we have a long cultural tradition of digging under the surface of small town life, particularly in their moments of peril. David Lynch did this with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” takes a small town’s love of tradition to its ugly and perhaps logical extreme. Under the Dome is then part of America’s love/hate relationship with its quaint small towns. On the one hand they are an idyllic place of tradition–places where people still shop downtown at local stores, manufacturing, farming, and commerce are united in a holistic balance, everyone knows your name, etc. But everyone also knows your name, which leads to gossip and backbiting. Those small town shops are full of the same crappy goods as last year, and everyone seems so boring. Many of our classic cultural productions either celebrate the small town (The Andy Griffith Show) or celebrate the escape to more exciting places. In Under the Dome we have a town ready to both come together in crisis, while also perhaps tearing each other limb from limb. It’s to the show’s credit that it manages so far to keep that balance.
But what might be most interesting about the show at this point is something else it reveals about America’s out-of-the-way places: they aren’t really out of the way. As I’m based in New York City, I often think about what it would be like to move to the country, perhaps up to the Catskills in a little cabin shaded by mountain. Because sometimes you just want to get away from it all. The privacy and intimacy of small town life is a big part of its appeal, but it is also a fiction. Your small town doctor might have cared for your parents and will care for your newborn too, but she got her degree at NYU, and her medical equipment (including the medication we so often need) comes from across the country and the globe. No grocery store is truly local, and the fact that I can eat an avocado salad in January in the upper-peninsula of Michigan reminds us of the globalized world we have always lived in, even if we choose to ignore it. Even those quaint towns along the Great Lakes or the Hudson River, with their small town atmosphere, exist because of the waterways and railroads that have been moving human beings and our goods around for generations. To live in the developed world, even in its tiniest corners, is to be globally connected. Our retreats from the world are merely tactical, and we return materially to it in order to survive with even modest comfort and security.
Under the Dome undermines all of this with its central premise–this town, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, is literally cut off from the rest of the world. The epidemic that spreads in episode three produces a crisis not only because a domed community is a great place for communicable disease, but because, when cut off from the world, the community has to ask if it has enough medicine to survive. No doubt the town will soon have to face shortages of food, clean water, and, soap. Perhaps, like Lost, they will find hidden resources under their own noses. But unless some shady European science project has been using Chester’s Mill as a secret base, that seems unlikely. Under the Dome pushes us to think very critically about what it means to just get away from it all. It’s not just being trapped with people who will reveal themselves to be more selfish in a crisis than you might have expected, but what happens when the resources we take for granted suddenly disappear.
I don’t know how hard Under the Dome will push on this idea, but the show’s greatest terror for me is the terror of scarcity. Previous shows have addressed these terrors, but Lost set the problem on a desert island and Revolution in a post-apocalyptic world. Under the Dome places the problem in our home towns, one of the central myth-making locations of American culture.