'Under the Dome' and the Return of the Miniseries

'Under the Dome' and the Return of the Miniseries

Anyone nostalgic for the '90s days of network TV miniseries based on Stephen King stories — The Langoliers, The Tommyknockers, celebrity-stuffed The Stand — likely tuned in last night to watch the premiere of the thirteen-part "limited series" Under the Dome, CBS's adaptation of King's well-received 2009 novel. While grander in scale, Under the Dome arrived with the same slightly hokey moments (or, OK, a lot hokey in some cases) of event-TV flare from the miniseries of old, throwing us into a silly yarn and promising us we won't have to wait too long to see how it all ends. It's good to be back in King's TV world again, as ridiculous a place as it might be.

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As you may have surmised, Under the Dome is about a bunch of people living... under a dome. Specifically, an enormous, invisible force field-like dome that descends on the town of Chester's Mill, a small and seemingly innocent hamlet that is, of course, full of secrets. The dome, which arrives without warning one clear bright morning, blocks radio and TV signals and even seems to be soundproof — people standing on either side of it can't hear each other. It zaps you when you touch it and, for at least two young folks, getting close to it sends people into prophetic seizures. Clearly there is something more than the initially suspected government insidiousness at work here.

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While we wait to figure that out, we've got a wide array of characters to watch run around. The handsome and ever-useful Mike Vogel (late of Bates Motel, a better and wackier place, but this will do) plays a vet turned criminal, whom we first see dumping a body in the woods. He's got a love interest in Rachelle LeFevre's Julia, the new editor of the local paper who's investigating the sudden and unexplained arrival of several large propane tanks, seemingly brought in by shifty local politician Big Jim. He's played by Breaking Bad's Dean Norris, and while the writing here isn't quite as juicy as it was on that great show, he at least seems to be having good time playing the bad guy this time around. Meanwhile Big Jim's son Junior (Alexander Koch) isn't the harmless dreamboat he appears to be — by the end of the first episode he's got his summer fling Angie (Britt Robertson, trying on a new grownup swagger) locked in the family fallout shelter. Angie's gangly teen brother Joe (We Bought a Zoo's Colin Ford) is thus on his own, his sister locked up and his parents on the other side of the dome. There's also the deputy who suddenly finds herself in a charge, a lesbian couple with an ailing teenage daughter, and Beth Broderick from Sabrina the Teenage Witch as the owner of a diner.

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So it's another of King's motley crews brought together by a common strangeness, and it was fun last night seeing them tangle themselves up in each other's problems. Under the Dome follows the prescribed structure of these kinds of sprawling mystery stories, first doing the surveying work of introducing us to the characters and their individual issues/secrets. Lost didn't exactly bring this particular genre to television, but I'd have to imagine that its lingering influence helped Under the Dome stutter into existence. Of course the twist here is that Under the Dome is exactly what Lost should have been: a miniseries. Or at least a "limited run" series. It's heartening to see CBS jumping back into the big-budget miniseries game so many years after the networks seemingly got scared and stopped making such things. Last month's network upfront presentations teased at several more limited series to come, which has me excited about the possible future of broadcast television. Sure, series like Under the Dome aren't Shakespeare, nor are they Christopher Nolan — last night's special effects were just slightly cheesier than the dialogue — but that networks are willing to tell ambitious stories in a relatively compact and blessedly finite manner is nothing if not a refreshing change of pace.

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And — what do you know? — it just might work. The premiere episode of Under the Dome brought in a whopping 13.1 million viewers last night, hopefully solidifying it as a summertime hit that will encourage more in this vein in the future. Though, we maybe shouldn't get too excited about this whole miniseries idea. In an interview with his hometown newspaper, the writer of the pilot, Shawn K. Vaughn, says, "It will have a satisfying conclusion, and we'll answer a lot of the mysteries presented in the pilot, but it is our hope we will get to come back to the 'Dome' next summer." Oh dear. Everyone has been calling this a miniseries, but what if it's not? What if this is a The Killing-style fake-out? Is the dome still there at the end of the thirteen episodes? Because I am willing to get invested for that long, but only that long. Thirteen contained episodes of gamely clunky summertime mystery are one thing. Twenty-six? Thirty-nine? Quite another.

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Still, if you've so far got no plans for your summer Mondays and just can't stomach watching Teen Wolf, this Under the Dome is a pleasant and, yes, moderately intriguing diversion. The concept probably plays a little less absurd in the book than it does on TV, but if we were willing to accept a magic whispering time change island for all those years, we can put up with a summer's worth of a giant dome. It's nice to see Stephen King's oversized storytelling return to TV, though it's hopefully only for a little while.