Under the Dome: “Pilot”

Expectations are tricky.

When they’re high, there’s possible disappointment, as there was for me with Fox’s recent TV thriller The Following. But when they’re low, there’s potential; that glimmer of hope that something might actually be pretty good.

I had relatively no expectations going into last night’s “Pilot” episode of Under the Dome other than my adoration of Stephen King, and if he’s involved, I’ll give it a try. Afterwards, surprisingly I came away quite satisfied.

Under the Dome begins with a mysterious man in a small New England town, Dale ‘Barbie’ Barbara, dumping a dead body into a shallow grave. As Barbie leaves, a force-field comes down, cutting off his, or anyone else’s exit from the town of Chester’s Mill. The barrier is a circular dome and it isolates everyone in town from the outside world. Panic ensues as Police Chief ‘Duke’ Perkins and local politician ‘Big Jim’ Rennie try to restore calm. But there are bigger mysteries in Chester’s Mill than just being under the dome. For months previous, diesel trucks have been stockpiling fuel unbeknownst to most residents. The reasons are only know by Duke and Big Jim and remain a mystery. Local reporter, Julia Shumway has been tipped off to the stockpiling but before she can investigate, the dome hits and she becomes intrigued with the mysterious man in town, Barbie. There is connection between the two, and not just the obvious primal one. Barbie knows the whereabouts of her unaccounted for husband, but he would dare not tell.

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From the “Pilot,” Under the Dome isn’t going to set the world afire, at least I don’t think so. There are predictable scares, stereotypical characters, mysterious supernatural forces, and some severed limbs (my personal favorite – the leg of the pilot dropping after her plane hit the dome). Yet conventions aside, it works. Embarrassed to admit, I jumped off my couch a few times with fright. This shouldn’t happen! I’m a grown man who’s seen countless horror movies, stories far scarier than this. But again, it works. The characters are predictable, especially Junior, the obsessed jealous teenager who abducts his girlfriend, Angie, and locks her in his father’s bomb shelter. Right here, Under the Dome shouldn’t engage me, but it does. Similar story-lines have been done many times over. Yet, I felt claustrophobic watching this scene, which is a testimony to both the acting and direction. Neither was overdone. Again, I shouldn’t be fooled by such things, but I was. The scene conjured up yet another irrational fear deep inside me – bomb shelters and pad locks. Great! Another thing to worry about.

From the “Pilot” episode at least, Under the Dome wasn’t trying to be anything than what it is, a sci-fi horror story meant to give the audience surprises, scares and a few inappropriate laughs. Should I really laugh at a cow being cut in half by an invisible force-field? No, but I do. The creators of Under the Dome don’t seem to be taking themselves too seriously, reminding me of the charm of CW’s Arrow. It’s never trying to be something its not, and that allows me be forgiving; the flaws almost become adorable.

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I haven’t read Stephen King’s novel, so I’m hoping Under the Dome will probe some questions about the human condition when put under terrible stress. What would any of us do when put together in a fish bowl, unable to leave? Will the good be able to stay morally sound, even if given the keys to power? Will evil persist in the individuals who have such a proclivity? Does power do what they say, corrupt absolutely? They’re excellent questions and it should be fun to watch how they are answered under the dome.

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