Under The Dome 1.01 “Pilot” REVIEW

Under The Dome 1.01 “Pilot” TV REVIEW

Episode 1.01
Writer:  Brian K. Vaughan
Director: Niels Arden Oplev

THE ONE WHERE In the middle of a normal day, a transparent dome descends over the sleepy American town of Chester’s Mill. Everyone inside the town is trapped, which is bad news for Dale “Barbie” Barbara who’s just killed someone. For Big Jim Rennie though, town councillor and self appointed leader of the town, it’s an opportunity…

VERDICT The much-vaunted TV adaptation of a Stephen King novel so huge you could beat a whale to death with it, Under The Dome sets out its stall pretty impressively. Opening on Barbie burying the man he’s just killed, the script jumps around introducing us to the various characters on their last normal day. There’s some smart character stuff dropped in here, especially with Big Jim. The Churchill biography hints at how much of a leader he wants to be, but the propane deliveries? I’m at a loss. Although I do have a couple of theories… There’s a lot of these little moments sewn in to the episode and they neatly set up seeds for future plots, introduce everyone and reveal what we already suspected: Chester’s Mill is not a nice place.

The first real hint we get is with Junior and Angie. What starts as the sort of slightly polite sex scene TV shows like to do turns into a sweet moment of emotional vulnerability. That curdles in an instant and the confrontation feels both very real and deeply disturbing. It’s a nice insight into exactly how broken Junior is, and it echoes all the way down the rest of the episode. Look at Big Jim’s emergency broadcast, and specifically, listen to how he says, “SOMEONE is going to die!” Does he know Junior’s constantly contemplating opening his arms with that butterfly knife? Or gutting whoever happens to be nearby? Either way, Junior is a wonderfully creepy, disturbing presence throughout the episode. Alexander Koch can look sinister just by standing still and he’s already one of the standout members of the cast.

The second major hint about Chester’s Mill comes from Big Jim himself. Dean Norris is one of the most prolific character actors of his generation and here he doesn’t so much steal the show as steal it, deck it out with fake plates and sell it back priced as new. Jim’s endlessly charming and clearly views himself as the heart of Chester’s Mill. If that’s the case, then Chester’s Mill is one bad day away from going mad. Jim is as feared as he is respected and clearly has plans but, so far, he seems to be a good guy. He’s an angry, deeply sinister good guy certainly but he’s not done anything bad. Yet.

Barbie, on the other hand, is a murderer. It’s a deeply brave choice, opening your series on your “hero” hiding a man’s body in the woods, and sets up the main ticking clock in the series. Sooner or later, someone is going to find Doc Shumway’s body and if the Dome is still up then Barbie is going to be in a lot of trouble. It’s even possible that this will lead to Big Jim pulling a Doctor Faustus on him and recruiting Barbie, which would be fun. Either that or we’ll discover the Doc was a spectacular git which would, honestly, disappoint me. The idea of Barbie as the definitive grey area; a guy who will rush in to save someone’s life but will just as happily end someone else’s has a lot of potential. Hopefully he’ll remain a wild card in the suddenly very small universe of Chester’s Mill. Either way, Mike Vogel brings a neat combination of competency and feral desperation to the role and his final scenes in particular are great.

The rest of the cast members, and there are a lot of them, all get their moments but the only other one that stands out this episode is the Dome itself. The visual effects of it dropping are stunning, but what works even better is the chaos. The moment when the Sheriff gets reports of accidents on every road is chilling. Even better is the final image; the tiny little scraps of life in Chester’s Mill surrounded by the huge, unknowable dome and the military forces parked outside it. It’s a sudden, absolute constant in a town filled with doubt and subterfuge and the havoc it’s going to cause has a lot of potential.

Under The Dome is off to a good start and anyone suffering The Returned withdrawal will find a lot to enjoy here. There’s the same basic idea of a good town with a bad past and hints of a very sinister over-arching plot. How that pays off will dictate how well the series works and news of a second season has already got many people worried. For now though, Under The Dome is a pleasantly nasty, intriguing story about what happens when small worlds get much smaller.

BEST LINES

“Like a car backfiring? Or like Tommy Anderson finally shot his wife?”
“He didn’t specify.” It’s such a shame we lose Jeff Fahey one episode in, because he’s always really good value. This exchange also neatly keys us in to the casual dubiousness of Chester’s Mill. Also, Duke sleeping in the cell is both a nice image and maybe indicates the late Sherriff did not have clean hands…

“I have loved you since the third grade. You are the only person who knows the real me.”
“And that’s why I can’t be with you.” This is just beautiful writing, alerting us to there being something badly wrong with Junior and it being clear to anyone who knows him in one line. Even better, it also lets us know Junior “acting out” is an open secret in the town. From romantic to tense in a single line.

“Never understood why you said yes to one of those meatheads.”
“Because their insurance policy makes ours look like crap?” One of the reasons it’s such a shame to see Fahey go at the end of this episode is how much fun he and Natalie Martinez are together. Duke and Linda are a good double act, and their rounded, affectionate bickering is one of the highlights of the episode.

“What if the government built this thing?”
“I doubt it.”
“Why?”
“’Cos it works.” Joe McAlister and Barbie, discussing the military industrial complex there.

“Sounds alien.”
“Sounds like Bjork.” Phil and Dodee, the DJ and engineer at the local radio station are already one of the most interesting elements of the show. After all, they’re the only active means of communication in town and that’s clearly something Big Jim wants control of. Plus, Dodee’s the first person to give find a clue about just what the Dome is. I’m don’t think it’s all Bjork’s fault, but let’s keep an open mind for now…

BEST IMAGE That final image of the Dome hunched over the town at night is especially great.

I’M SORRY, YOUR NAME IS WHAT NOW? Julia Shumway. Hmmm. In the deeply wonderful old sci fi sit com ALF (Alien Life Form), Alf’s real name was Gordon Shumway. I’m not saying this is a clue to Julia’s true nature but it is a nice shout out to the show. Now go look up ALF on YouTube because you weren’t born when it was on. Also get off my lawn.

SWEETEST MOMENT Linda and Rusty, each on different sides of the Dome was a really nice image. As an aside, I’m looking forward to seeing Rusty’s side of things soon too.

SMARTEST MOMENT Barbie using the plane crash as an excuse for his cut was a very nice touch. What’s interesting is Duke didn’t seem to buy it…

NASTIEST MOMENT *Strong Bad Voice* DOMED! The bisected cow was wonderfully icky. Especially the puddle of blood Barbie sticks his hand in.

CRAZY THEORY CORNER*

* And before you say, “Why not just read the book” already in this first episode there are major, major departures from the novel, so anything goes really (and Brian K Vaughan has admitted the explanation for the dome will be different).

The Prepper Theory Jim, Duke and whoever else knew are militant survivalists who were planning for something nasty to happen and had stockpiled the Propane in preparation for it
Pros It would make sense to stockpile something like Propane, especially if the town has its own independent water and power supplies.
Cons Except it clearly doesn’t as the power’s gone out.

The Dome Cult Theory The Dome was created, activated or summoned by Big Jim and the others because they expect the Rapture to be along shortly and want to use the town as Noah’s Ark with added countryside and diner.
Pros Just crazy enough to make sense, and would explain the coincidence so huge that even Jim mentions it; they were stockpiling for a disaster, just before a disaster.
Cons Everyone seems convincingly surprised by the Dome’s arrival.

The Fake Accident Theory Duke specifically mentions that the town was almost bankrupt a year ago. What if Big Jim and the others were stockpiling the Propane to fake an accident or terrorist attack on the town in order to cash in on various insurance policies and media opportunities?
Pros That’s a lot of very explosive gas. It would also explain why everyone in town is so scared of Jim, if they know he’s crazy enough to plan this sort of thing.
Cons It’s not the brightest plan in the world and would, inevitably, involve some deaths. Which would damage Jim’s re-election chances.

The “Not Penny’s Bomb” Theory Jim and the other people stockpiling the propane are domestic terrorists planning an attack somewhere else in the state.
Pros Makes a lot of sense given how the propane is being stockpiled and Big Jim’s just crazy enough to make a good cell leader.
Cons It’s all just a bit 24. Although if in two seasons we find out Barbie’s an off the books special forces operator sent in to shut him down I will be FILLED with the smug.

IT’S WOSSNAME! Blimey Charlie, there’s a lot of these! Okay, deep breath.

Mike Vogel (Barbie) Barbie, was apparently one of the shortlisted actors for Captain America. He was also memorably very killed indeed in Cloverfield.

Rachel Lefevre (Julia) has appeared in Boston Legal and was Victoria in the first two Twilight movies.

Natalie Martinez (Linda) had a regular role in CSI: New York and has an unusual claim to fame. She was cast as Chuck’s neighbour and love interest in Chuck, filmed scenes for the role but was one of several characters cut or modified at the last minute to streamline the show.

Mackenzie Lintz (Norrie) has been In Drop Dead Diva and was one of the Tributes in The Hunger Games.

Colin Ford (Joe) has appeared in Hawaii Five-O, CSI:Miami and Family Guy amongst others. He also played the young Sam in five episodes of Supernatural. This kid’s got survival skills. He’ll be fine.

Nicholas Strong (Phil) was in Nashville and also appeared in an episode of The Office.

Jolene Purdy (Dodee) was Cerita in Donnie Darko and it’s a delight to see she’s not only had a decent career between then and now but is front and centre in a show like this.

Dean Norris (Big Jim) has been in everything. Ever. Seriously, if Jim Beaver or Jeff Fahey haven’t been in it, chances are Dean Norris has been. Films like Lethal Weapon 2, Total Recall, Gremlins 2 and Starship Troopers are all on his list. On TV, he’s best known these days for Breaking Bad but has also appeared in Beauty And The Beast, The Equalizer (Best theme tune ever!), 24 and The X-Files.

Beth Broderick (Rose) has appeared in Supernatural, The Closer, ER, Leverage, Castle and numerous other TV shows and movies.

Aisha Hinds (Carolyn) was in Star Trek Into Darkness and has also appeared in TV shows like Invasion, Dollhouse, Bones and True Blood.

Samantha Mathis (Alice) was in Pump Up The Volume. Therefore she wins. To confirm her victory, she also appeared in Ferngully, Little Women, Jack And Sarah, The Punisher and numerous TV shows including the very short lived Harsh Realm.

Jeff (Duke) Fahey’s credits are so insanely long Wikipedia itself throws its hands up in despair and just listed TV shows and movies together. From the original Miami Vice and The Lawnmower Man through to Criminal Minds and his fantastic turn as Frank Lapidus in Lost, Fahey’s one of the best character actors out there. He and Dean Norris should do a show where they team up and fight crime. For all I know they already have…

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
• What is the Dome?
• Is it man made?
• Is it alien?
• How did the Army get there so (relatively) fast?
• Does it extend all the way under the town as well?
• What was Doc Shumway really doing when he disappeared on all those Sundays?
• Who was he working for that led him to meet, fight, and be killed by Barbie?
• Who does Barbie work for?
• What’s going on with the Propane?
• Who else knew about Big Jim’s Propane stocks?
• Has Junior actually killed anyone, or would he just really like to?
• Won’t Angie be missed?
• Why was Duke’s pacemaker affected by the Dome?
• Why was Duke’s pacemaker apparently yanked from his body by the dome?
• Is the Dome air tight?
• What are the strange transmissions Dodee’s picking up?
• Why did Norrie and Joe both repeat the phrase “The stars are falling in lines?”
• Was Joe affected because he’d begun speculating about the Dome’s power source?
• Why is the water level in the reservoir dropping? (Oops, wrong show)

Alasdair Stuart