Stephen King: News from the Dead Zone #160 (Under the Dome recap)
As everyone prepares to get copies of Doctor Sleep tomorrow or perhaps even head out to Boulder or NY or Boston to see King, I thought I’d talk about Under the Dome, which wrapped its first season last week. I’ll be back later with my Doctor Sleep coverage—or you can check out my review in issue #70 of Cemetery Dance.
Not everyone was enamored of the show. One objection was that some people went into it thinking they were committing to a limited-run miniseries instead an open-ended, ongoing series. When it was renewed, there were howls from some quarters, even though that was always the producers’ hope.
The biggest complaint, though, was the degree to which it departed from the novel. Every Tuesday morning, the woman in the office next to mine would stop at my door, express her frustration at the most recent changes, shake her head, and continue on to her desk. Stephen King wrote an open later defending the changes on his website after only a couple of episodes had aired. He said, “I’m enjoying the chance to watch that alternate reality play out; I still think there’s no place like Dome.”
The writers and producers didn’t sneak these changes into the story. The opening scene features Dale Barbara burying Peter Shumway’s body. That was as clear an announcement as any that this wasn’t Uncle Stevie’s Under the Dome, for better or for worse.
In my opinion, mostly for the better. If the TV series had followed the novel to the letter, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did.
But let’s be clear. It won’t go down in the annals as one of the best TV shows ever. This isn’t Lost or Breaking Bad. Why? It’s hard to put a finger on the reason. I didn’t mind that I often didn’t get to see an episode until a day or two after it aired, whereas missing Lost was a major crisis. Under the Dome is a show about mysteries, and the characters are intriguing, but it doesn’t have that frisson that comes with the crème-de-la-crème of television. The acting is generally satisfactory but not award-worthy. The writing is mostly decent. The story is engrossing. The special effects can be quite good at times. Faint praise, but praise nonetheless.
The show delivered consistently strong ratings, with more than 10 million people watching most episodes. The final episode had the second-highest viewership of the season, after the premiere. Compare that to Breaking Bad, which peaked at 6.4 million viewers. It had strong support from the network and from its cast. Dean Norris (Big Jim) was one of its biggest advocates. My Twitter stream during the hour the episode ran was overrun by cast members commenting on the episode. I’m still not 100% sold on the concept of live tweeting—is it wise to distract viewers from the show?—but the level of commitment is encouraging.
Let’s talk about the characters. Every one of them departs from the novel versions in some aspect. Angie lives on the TV show, whereas she’s dead (but not gone) throughout the book. “Scarecrow” Joe is older than his novel counterpart; Julie Shumway is younger (and hotter). Maxine Seagrave, Norrie Calvert’s moms, and several other characters are new to the series. Few are “sacred,” in the sense that just about anyone could be killed.
In general, they’re more ambiguous in the TV show. At times you feel bad for Big Jim, or you think that he might redeem himself. Similarly with Junior, who is basically a confused and disturbed young man seeking his father’s approval and love. On the other hand, Barbie has aspects to his personality that aren’t so laudable.
This added depth is intriguing. Consider Linda, who is forced into the role of chief lawkeeper after Duke dies (and how great would it have been if Jeff Fahey had stuck around a little longer?). Her allegiances drift over the course of the thirteen episodes. Some complained about inconsistent characterization, but in Linda’s case, she’s simply befuddled and confused. She’s not privy to as much information as viewers are. Swayed by stronger personalities and overwhelmed by the demands of her job. By contrast, Maxine, who was uniformly and delightfully evil wasn’t all that interesting
Unlike in the book, there is weather inside the dome. This is more of a filming consideration than a deliberate decision on the part of the writers, but it gives them some interesting things to play with. The dome itself is different, too. It seems sentient. It communicates via Lost-like apparitions, but also displays a temper, sending massive storms when it’s displeased. However, it also sends needed rain, so it’s not altogether hostile, and we learn late in the season that the dome claims to be protecting the people of Chester’s Mill, although from what we don’t yet know. And then there’s the egg. Is it the generator or something more? Have we seen the last of it, now that it’s at the bottom of the lake?
The producers promised that they wouldn’t make us wait for the answers to some of the big mysteries, and they were true to their word. We found out why Barbie was burying Julia’s husband. We found out why Big Jim was stockpiling propane. The mysterious “pink stars are falling” mantra began to make some sense with the revelations about Big Jim’s dead wife. We even learned something of the nature of the dome, though not everything. It appears that some extraterrestrial force is at work, though one less capricious and juvenile than what King created in his novel. Was I surprised that Julia ended up being the monarch? In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been. After all, she was the narrator, and I’d found myself wondering from time to time why that was. It makes sense now.
Will I be back for the second season? Yes, definitely. I doubt that Barbie is going to dangle (did anyone else think about Roland and Cort watching Hax during that scene?), but I’m curious to see how he gets out of that pickle. How long can Big Jim keep on doing what he’s doing before more people catch on?
There’s still plenty of story to tell, and some shows improve with age. The writers have time to step back and assess what works and what doesn’t. Stephen King will be writing at least the first episode of the second season, so there’s that, too.