“Chester’s Mill is a place like any other,” the opening narration tells us, but unless all towns have kidnapping psychos, ex-soldiers with mysterious pasts, dead doctors, and town councilmen with deep dark secrets, that’s pretty much bullshiit. The “average small town” conceit set sail maybe five minutes into Under The Dome’s pilot—and that’s fine. There’s a long, storied history of TV shows uncovering the seedy underbellies of seemingly good-natured small towns, and there’s a certain dark irony in the fact that a giant, closed force-field is maybe second or third on the townsfolks’ list of “Stuff I Have To Deal With Today.” Or at least, there could be. This far into the show’s run, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what the point of all this is. Week in and week out, people wander around, and occasionally there’s some spark of drama when they remember they’re cut off from the outside world; Big Jim wonders if maybe he can turn all of this to his advantage, although not quite yet; Julia mentions something about her husband and Barbie looks pained; and Junior torments poor Angie, because he’s a crazy bastard, and crazy bastards do that sort of shit.
On the plus side, this week finds a couple of the show’s stalling plotlines moving forward. There’s some actual discussion about the consequences of what it would be like to be trapped in a confined space with limited supplies, and even a minor crisis to bring everyone together. Yet the basic structural problems remain the same. The urgency is fleeting and easily resolved; tension mounts, only to dissipate when it should be squeezing even more tightly. Oh, there’s another death, and it’s moderately sad, but the kindly older teacher who sacrifices her life to save a former student is about as low as you can go, emotional manipulation wise, unless you decide to start killing off kids. Every time an idea is raised that threatens to affect everyone’s placid acceptance of their situation—like the fact that the town is so low on doctors the hospital has to draft Alice, a psychiatrist with limited medical experience, to take over—it drifts off into the ether, a potentially interesting concept that gets lost in a sea of uninteresting subplots. Alice rises to the challenge admirably, which is nice for her and all, but after stressing how inexperienced she is, it’s strange to have her quickly and accurately diagnose a meningitis outbreak. Competent heroes are good heroes to have, but the crisis at the hospital barely gets above a minor tiff. Junior manages to talk everyone down with a trite speech about how they all need to hold together. Shouldn’t there be more of a cost here than just one poor teacher?
The problem, really, is that the premise has been compromised by a need to be sustainable. There’s no knowing how long the series is going to run, and with the ratings as good as they are, it’ll be around for a few seasons at least; the writers and producers didn’t realize it was going to be a hit, but they did have to plan for the long haul, and that means sacrificing the sense of lunatic urgency that drove the source material. The book was about people, even good people, making stupid choices in a crisis, and watching how fast a formerly nice town could turn to shit once paranoia and fear set in. The show is probably going to head in that direction eventually, but everyone’s pacing themselves. Which could work, honestly. I liked the book a lot, but the characters weren’t the most well-developed in the world, and taking the time to build a convincing population will make it all that more affecting when the shit gets increasingly real. But the result so far has been a largely uninteresting ensemble just kind of hanging out. Occasionally, someone dies.
One of the challenges of writing fantastical fiction is trying to understand how characters would react when faced with the unprecedented. Since most of us will never fight vampires or giant monsters or force fields, and since there’s no actual realistic context to draw on, you have to find some balance between horror and awe, and the existential terror that comes from struggled with what shouldn’t exist. So far, there’s little to none of that on this show. Sure, it could be part of the joke: They’re all so wrapped up in their own little worlds that a dome doesn’t really register. But it should register for the audience, and it barely has. The effects cost money, no question, and to be fair, the shots we do get of the dome, and what happens when people interact with it (or spray paint in careful reverse letters, as they were doing pre-riot in this episode, apparently), have been neat. Yet there’s been no real effort on the part of the writers to make this crisis a specific one; yes, a mysterious force field is pretty distinct, but what impact would that have? Make it personal. Make it more than just a concept. Why aren’t more people trying to contact the outside world? How did the locals go from “The fuck?” to “Oh ayuh, that’s just a dome that is, nothing much to see there” in the space of a day?
As to the specifics of this particularly episode, it was a little better, but not enough to indicate that anyone working on this knows how to make this work as a television series. Folks start collapsing, so there’s some excitement at the hospital; it’s kind of hilarious how fast the outbreak spreads, but there’s something effective in the idea that, sealed inside the dome, contagions are going to move that much faster. It’s a consequence, and this show could desperately use more sense of consequences. A few characters assure one another that this whole crisis will pass swiftly, which at least provides a moderately believable reason as to why no one’s freaking out yet; it also sets up the idea that as soon as that assumption gets knocked away, panic is going to hit hard. Still, it saps a lot of the intensity out of the situation when everyone seems to take things so matter of course. There are a few hold-outs, like Reverend Lester, who has gone into full on religious nut mode and steals drugs from the town pharmacy because he believes that the sickness is God’s plan. But Big Jim figures out what happened soon enough (although he assumes Lester took the drugs to get high, I’m guessing), and Lester’s efforts really only cost that poor teacher her life. Which, again, is sad, but it’s an easily resolved problem that everybody just kind of walks off. Carolyn and Alice get a brief scene together, when Alice discovers Carolyn hoarding insulin, that tries to suggest things are going to get worse, but there’s no sense of anything building at all.
Thankfully, there’s some progress on the two biggest non-dome related plotlines: Barbie and Julia’s game of secrets and Junior’s Angie in a box. The former provides at least a little hope that the writers know what they’re doing, as we’re finally at a point where we know what Barbie was doing in town, and why he confronted Peter in the cabin: The ex-soldier was working as an enforcer for a bookie, and Peter was heavily, heavily in debt. Barbie still lies and tells Julia that her husband left town, but baby steps; their inevitable romance is put on hold when Julia tells him to get the hell out of her house. (This is after she endangers the entire town by escaping from the hospital and going to the cabin where Barbie shot Peter.)
The Junior stuff is, as ever, more awkward to deal with. Angie tries to stab him with a pair of scissors, he gets all accusatory, and then he goes over to the hospital and talks everyone out of a riot, thereby earning himself a deputy badge. Which... gah. Him getting a badge is important, because it suggests how Big Jim will gradually start to take over the town. But Junior acting all sensible and sympathetic to get it, after tormenting the supposed love of his life in a bomb shelter a few hours before, is bizarre. Junior doesn’t make any sense at all, really, and the more the show leans on him to generate suspense, the shakier it’s going to get. But at least Big Jim has stumbled across his big secret. Who knows how that will turn out—okay, we all know: Jim is going to be upset, and then he’s going to realize he has no choice but to keep Angie captive in order to protect his son. Which is awful, but at least Dean Norris will sell the hell out of the internal conflict. And at least watching Big Jim struggle with his conscience is more interesting than watching Junior do whatever the hell it is he does.
- Big thanks to Scott for letting me sit in this week.
- The riot near the start of the episode was a bit of a bummer. It’s the sort of thing we should be seeing more of (in that it suggests how the town as a whole is reacting to the dome), but the size of the group is a reminder of the probable limitations of TV budgets. It’s frustrating how little we’ve seen of people trying to communicate to each other through the force field. The more solid reminders we get of what it would be like to be trapped, the more effective this show could be, but so far, we just get glimpses.
- Angie spends about half of her screen-time soaking wet, which is pretty classy, show. (I’d completely forgot she was related to Joe until Joe asked Junior about her.)
- Joe and Norrie have another seizure. Joe films this one; it’s a little creepy when his seizing self shushes the camera, although I’m not really sold on Joe’s physical acting skills.
- Speaking of Norrie, her casual, “What’s going to happen when the food runs out?” is, I’m assuming, laying some groundwork, although it’s hilarious how quickly Joe shrugs off the possibility.
- The idea that Junior is insane enough to kidnap and hold captive a person because he’s decided she’s changed, and that he would be rational enough to put down the gun in the hospital after giving his big speech, just doesn’t make sense. The two concepts aren’t directly related, but the former indicates deep-rooted paranoia and fear, while the latter doesn’t.
- Dean Norris is really good on this. As my faith that this will somehow get better continues to fade, Norris is the main reason I keep watching.