Judge Gordon Sullivan is feeling a little cooped up himself.
No way in. No way out.
Stephen King's greatest gift is probably his folksy charm—he captures something about the rhythms and habits of the denizens of Maine, though his characters feel more universal than their Yankee heritage would suggest. His second greatest gift is that he knows exactly how to get the plots of his stories boiling to put those people under optimum pressure, a pressure that helps reveal both the good deeds they're capable of as well as the black hearts that beat beneath some chests. Whether it's a shop that sells people their heart's desire or a plague that wipes out most of the population, King's stories usually have a fun conceit built in. Under the Dome is his most transparent conceit so far, pun definitely intended. By literally putting his characters under a giant transparent dome—trapped much like lab specimens for us to watch—we get to see what happens to the small town of Chester's Mill under pressure. Though it's not a rigid adaptation, Under the Dome: Season One introduces viewers to an adaptation with some great names attached, even if these 13 episodes don't live up to the promise of King's premise.
Facts of the Case
One day a dome, faintly crackling with electricity, comes down around the town of Chester's Mill, Maine. People are trapped inside, since no one can get out or in. This leaves mysterious Barbie, who's new in town, trapped alongside regulars like the editor of the local paper (Rachelle Lefevre, Twilight), a councilman and used car salesman (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad), and the Sherriff (Natalie Martinez, End of Watch). People on both sides of the dome struggle to figure out what's going on, as people start to turn on one another when the pressure mounts and secrets are revealed.
To talk about Under the Dome, we first have to address expectations. The Stephen King book was a bestseller, and a healthy doorstop of a book. King adaptations have a rocky history, but the idea of a mini-series adaptation isn't a hard one to swallow. However, that's not what Under the Dome is—instead, this is a five-season long re-imagining of the basic premise of the novel, not a straightforward adaptation. The series is adapted by scribe Brian K. Vaughan, who has credits on Lost to complement his work in comics, including his creator-owned series Y: The Last Man. The show is produced by Amblin Entertainment, which means that Steven Spielberg gets a credit as well. The pilot is directed by Niels Arden Opev, who helmed the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Throw in the fact that one of the main characters is played by Dean Norris, fresh off the Breaking Bad finale, and you should have a creative dream team to rival any new television series of the 21st century.
Why, then, does Under the Dome feel so uneven? From the show's opening moments there a tremendous amount of variability in the quality of the show. Some moments are great, presenting us with compelling mysteries and characters we want to see succeed. Other moments are leadenly written and fall farther apart with the over-earnest delivery of some of the cast. It's like there's one great episode of television buried in these 13, and we're asked to sit through it all to get some satisfaction.
But satisfaction is difficult to find in Under the Dome, because the show is spreading its narrative over five season, it wants to tease us, Lost-style, but can offer nothing serious in the way of a season-long arc. It's generally true that each episode should give us some closure before the entire seasons does, and ideally the whole series will add up to something. Not so much with Under the Dome. Yes, we've got a villain, yes we've got a mystery, but at the end of 13 seasons we're basically told "come back for more if you want to learn about the dome" without giving us a good hint or satisfying plot resolution to wait on.
The characters that inhabit this world feel more like structures of convenience than the types that King usually trucks with. Big Jim, the councilman-car-salesman is Dean Norris doing his level best to not twirl his moustache given the dialogue that's been written, and his son "Junior" goes from "puppy love" college kid to "kidnapping his girlfriend" psycho in the space of less than a day. Both of them feel like contrived villains in a space that didn't need them. Barbie the mysterious stranger at least feels archetypal enough to work, but too many of our main character are poorly developed stereotypes. The only excuse for spreading a 700 page novel over 60+ episode is to live longer with the characters, but in this case I don't care about any of them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At least Under the Dome: Season One (Blu-ray) presents nothing to complain about. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers are top notch, as the 13 episodes are spread across four discs. The discs are housed in a slipcase that slides into a reinforced cardboard box that features a raised "dome" on the cover. It's a nice touch and very handsome packaging overall. The transfers themselves are great, with strong detail throughout and plenty resolution that shows off both the close-ups of the actors as well as the setting of Chester's Mill. Colors are well saturated, though a bit muted by the cinematography, and black levels stay consistent and deep. There's some noise in darker scenes that gives the image a flat look, but it's not terribly distracting. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtracks are similarly strong. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while surrounds get a workout establishing the town's atmosphere. Clarity is strong, with action scenes demonstrating a remarkable dynamic range.
Extras start on the first disc with a 29 minute making-of featurette and some deleted scenes. The second and third discs also house deleted scenes, while the fourth disc includes four featurettes (one on Stephen King, one on adapting the novel, one on the shooting of the series, and one on the season overall), more deleted scenes, and some "blog entries" for the character Joe McAllister. Finally, the disc includes a gag reel as well.
When the show is on—like the first few moments after the dome comes down when everything is in chaos—it's really on. Perhaps with all five seasons out there, Under the Dome will be easier to judge, and the unevenness will be smoothed out with time.
Under the Dome is a flawed attempt to bring Stephen King's novel to TV. The series could still find something to say if it can figure out how to address uneven writing, but for now this set is recommend only lightly to fans of King's work, even if the Blu-ray set is excellent.
The court withholds judgment until further seasons have appeared.
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