As the last real broadcast network left, CBS doesn’t need to experiment as much as its competitors. They’re all trying to invent new rules for the business, while CBS still manages to make money and find big audiences under the old rules.
Every now and then, though, the good ol’ Eye Network will try something different, and the premiere of “Under the Dome” tomorrow night at 10 seems like one of its more intriguing experiments of late.
The series – or “summer event,” or however it’s being described in any given week by CBS – is adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, about a small town called Chester’s Mill whose citizens find themselves trapped inside an invisible, impenetrable dome. It’s a catchy premise, mixing science fiction with a CBS-friendly pastoral setting. It has a solid cast, including Dean Norris, Mike Vogel, Rachelle LeFevre and Britt Robertson. And in executive producer Brian K. Vaughan, it has a writer of both high-concept TV like “Lost” and comic books like “Y: The Last Man” (an immature street performer tries to survive in a world where every man but himself has died at once), “Ex Machina” (a superhero retires and becomes mayor of New York shortly after interceding in 9/11) and “Saga” (an R-rated fantasy epic mashing up “Romeo and Juliet” and “Star Wars,” among many other influences).
This is all excellent raw material. Of course, King adaptations often feature such impressive individual parts, and only occasionally exceed the sum of them. But the “Under the Dome” pilot is quite promising.
There’s the usual collection of King archetypes: the big fish in the small pond (Norris’ car dealer and councilman Big Jim) who becomes drunk on his own power, the mysterious rogue with the haunted past (Vogel as an ex-military operative who calls himself Barbie), and the children who have to raise themselves (Robertson and Colin Ford as Angie and Joe, whose parents are both outside the dome when it goes up). There are ominous, puzzling phrases to be repeated as if generated by magic (“The stars are falling in lines”), and King’s familiar theme of paranormal events bringing out the worst in otherwise normal human beings.
Aside from a couple of iffy performances (Alex Koch goes too creepy too quickly as Angie’s estranged boyfriend Junior), the pilot’s executed very well. Vaughan, director Niels Arden Oplev (who helmed the original Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and the special effects team throw out one disturbing image after another, like a cow in exactly the wrong place when the dome appears, or the devastating result of a dome vs. truck collision. There are dollops of humor when necessary (a radio engineer, picking up faint signals from right outside the dome, says the jumble “sounds like Bjork”), and the leads are used well. After five seasons playing Hank on “Breaking Bad” (the last one to resume in August), Norris has earned the right to be more central to a series’ action from the start, and he struts around the screen like he owns it in the same way Big Jim thinks he owns the town. And like his role as a crooked deputy on “Bates Motel,” Vogel’s becomes much more interesting when there’s some darkness inserted beneath his all-American good looks.
I haven’t read the book, nor seen past tomorrow night’s episode, so I have no idea how long this premise can be sustained, and CBS is playing coy about how long, if at all, it wants “Under the Dome” to run past this summer. But the opening episode is creepy, and it explores the premise and the talent on-hand in interesting ways.
It’s been a while since any of the broadcast networks has had a genuine scripted hit in summer. There are marginal performers like “Rookie Blue” that stick around because international financing justifies their ratings. But the networks have pretty much ceded scripted summer TV to their cable rivals. CBS is doing well enough in the regular season that it doesn’t need “Under the Dome” to work, but I’m glad that they’re trying, and that the experiment gets off to a good start tomorrow.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org