I am not quite sure when the realisation hit.
It could have been when a cow came off second best in the bovine vs dome battle that gruesomely punctuated the arrival of the transparent, impervious to sound curved shield that descended without much warning, bar some earthquake-like shaking and high winds, onto the quintessential small American town of Chester’s Mill, sealing it off completely from the outside world.
Or it could have been when I realised that everyone, and I mean everyone, came loaded with more secrets than a catalogue from Victoria.
Or was it when Junior Rennie (Alexander Koch), son of would-be town dictator and now lone councilman, James “Big Jim” Rennie emotionally snapped like a brittle twig underfoot when his would-be girlfriend Angie McAllister (Britt Robertson), consumed by dreams of fleeing banal small town life, leapt off him when he said he loved her?
Honestly, I can’t really recall when the realisation hit that Under The Dome, hyped by CBS (and Channel 10, which is showing it in Australia) to within an inch of its 10 episode life, and based on Stephen King’s 2009 novel of the same name, was as cheesy as an overstocked dairy farmers’ market.
But as the episode went on, I began to realise more and more that the latest televisual feast from Stephen Spielberg, while compelling television with all the right boxes ticked that admittedly had me watching till the credits rolled, was the love child of a gruyere fondue and a Lush handmade soap store.
It makes sense that it would be like a nice big, hard-to-miss sudsy slab of camembert.
After all look at the the genre it occupies.
The ordinary-people-caught-extraordinary-circumstances oeuvre includes all manner of odd bed buddies such as giant exploding volcanoes, errant comets plunging towards Earth, and gigantic tsunamis sweeping in on unsuspecting coastal communities.
Given the larger than life scenarios that populate the genre like the rapidly multiplying threats that give it a reason for being, it is nigh but impossible to avoid the stock standard tropes it embraces with gusto like an overwrought sense of foreboding, characters with more agendas (and secrets) than a political party convention, and the slow but steady breakdown of civilisation in favour of some Lord of the Flies behaviour from some, and inspiring Hallmark movie-inspiring actions from others.
Under the Dome had them all in large, heapin’ helpings of sudsy drama.
I am not sure why I didn’t see that coming since no matter how well you write a show like this, it is going to veer into guilty pleasure-viewing territory almost immediately.
It is almost impossible to avoid it.
But here’s the thing.
While it’s not spectacularly good, leaning towards good solid, if predictable drama rather than the sort of cutting edge feel of a HBO or AMC series, it is actually quite well done for what it is.
For a start while it is chock full of cardboard cut out characters such as the ambitious politician on the rise “Big Jim” who wastes no time seizing the chance to start wielding unfettered power the dome falls, the stranger in town Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel), an Army veteran with secrets galore and actual bodies buried nearby, and the well meaning, if ambitious policewoman, Deputy Linda Equivel (Natalie Martinez), it manages to somehow, in the brief slivers of screen time allotted to each in the pilot, to transcend these limited characterisations.
“Barbie” for instance is introduced in the opening frames of Under the Dome, hurriedly burying a body in a forest on the edge of town.
Working quickly but methodically, it is clear he needs to bury the evidence and fast, with a subsequent phone call by him to an unknown person leading to the all-too-quick conclusion that he is a criminal of some kind and the dead man a poorly calculating thuggish foe who came off second best.
But in the panic and confusion following the dome’s arrival, “Barbie” saves the life of Joe McAlister, a whippet smart farm boy (and sister of Angie) from the falling debris of a light plane that explodes when it hits the all-but-invisible shield, successfully warns oncoming road traffic to stop before they hit the barrier and rushes a woman to the hospital whose hand has been cleanly amputated when she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, displaying all the bravery and strength of character that you would expect of a man who had represented his country.
In other words, he is reasonably nuanced and it’s made clear, possibly too clear, that he is at heart a Good Guy.
And some thought has also been given to fleshing out the characters of Deputy Linda Equivel, Joe McAlister, who along with passing-through-town teenage girl Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz) collapses uttering the mysterious words “The stars, the stars are all in line”, and to a limited extent, journalist Julia Shumway (whose surname makes me think of ALF every damn time I read it).
To be fair, the show’s producers, which include the man who developed the show brian K Vaughan, and Spielberg and King, only had 45 minutes to set the scene, introduce to a sprawling ensemble of a cast, which includes townspeople and those just passing through like Norrie’s mums, Carolyn Hill (Aisha Hinds) and Alice Calvert (Samantha Mathis), and throw a few rather obviously telegraphed narrative ooh aahs our way and to a great extent they succeeded.
I kept watching all the way to the end didn’t I?
But while it was good as far it went, it lacked that certain special dramatic impact, that elusive “x factor”, that made me crave coming back to watch the second episode.
While there is every chance it will evolve into a more complex, finely nuanced drama, which is why I am returning next week for another helping, it will need to do something about its clunky dialogue, all too obvious advertised narrative jumps, and characters drawn with a great big red crayon whose secrets are writ so large, it’s a wonder they don’t have their own Tumblr page.
Almost everything about it is too obvious, and clumsily wrought to inspire the sort of water cooler speculative chats viewers should rush to engage in after an episode.
Good, gripping drama, yes.
Great drama worthy of an unqualified commitment to keep watching? Not yet.