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Under the Dome Recap: Domesday

UNDER THE DOME: James “Big Jim” Rennie (Dean Norris, pictured rear right) and the residents of Chester’s Mill find themselves suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by a massive transparent dome, on UDER THE DOME, premiering Monday, June 24 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on CBS.  UNDER THE DOME is based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel. Photo: Michael Tackett/©2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

As with Vulture’s Game of Thrones recaps, Under the Dome will remain relatively spoiler-free in regards to Stephen King’s 2009 novel. Please observe this in the comments, or flag your spoilers loudly and clearly.

The final moment in Under the Dome’s premiere is telling. It's delivered through clunky exposition ("Duke, is it your pacemaker, buddy?" "What pacemaker, you mean this pacema—" BLAAAAOW; Duke’s chest explodes), but it feels engaging and high-stakes. Why? Because Duke's death (presumed death?) comes at the hands of an invisible, impenetrable dome from space and/or the military and/or who the hell knows where. The dome short-circuited the machinery in Duke's chest, and we don't know why. It's one of many genuinely intriguing whys; Under the Dome is going to be as much a mystery as it is a small-town disaster drama. The performances, production values, and writing might wobble all over the quality spectrum, but, like Lost, the plot's going to sink new hooks in us every week.

The show shares spiritual and actual human DNA with Lost, with Brian K. Vaughan being the man who developed the miniseries. In addition to penning a few of Lost’s heaviest-hitting episodes, Vaughan is also the creator and writer of the graphic novel Y: The Last Man, which sets up a similar "what if?" premise immaculately well in its opener: What if every male mammal died in the same instant? Planes would crash from the skies, food supplies would dwindle, chaos would reign — Y is similar to Dome in its booming opening statement and the "oh yeah, that probably would happen" ripples that emanate from there.

Under the Dome’s opener plays on two registers: Dark and Ominous, and Loud and Massive. It goes light on the huge moments and heavy on the foreboding tone, promising a slow burn toward absolute anarchy with firestorms of destruction along the way. A cow does get split in half, and that's the kind of thing you remember, even if it's done with network TV’s CGI budget.

The pilot is directed by original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo helmer Niels Arden Oplev, and the opening shot's artistry is promising. The coloring is identical to the Under the Dome book cover, which has been roundly deployed in CBS's marketing materials for the show. But it also appears we're going to open straight onto a town trapped under a dome, until we realize it's a bird's egg. It's new life! Mama bird heads out to forage, something that’ll become pretty tough in the days to come. In another fakeout, I'm ready for the mama bird to smack into the dome. But we're going to wait a little for that — it’s characters first, dome second, which is a wise choice.

This is an apt time to sum up the whopping cast introduced in the first 42 minutes. These recaps won't take this form each week, but it seems like a worthwhile service to provide this time. If you feel overwhelmed, take solace in the fact that the novel is known for its cast of over 70 speaking parts — it leads with a Shakespeare-style Cast of Characters including Dogs of Note.

Big Jim Rennie: At first glance, the man seems wrong without a Southern accent and a cowboy hat and a doofy swagger. I’d argue that no matter how Stephen King described him in the novel, Big Jim fits so squarely into the King archetype of the fat, corrupt, chatterbox sheriff that there’s no other way to picture Big Jim. And yet, by the episode’s end, I’ve forgotten my old image of Big Jim — Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris is doing his own thing, and he’s doing it well. One fact to keep in mind, something only brushed upon in this episode: Big Jim is a locally famous used car salesman. And the man’s desk plate actually reads James “Big Jim” Rennie. His reaction to the beginning of the dome mayhem — “Plane crash? Chester’s Mill?” — and the way he instantly kicks into gear is spookily 9/11-like and accurately Dick Cheney–ish. How can a slimy politician spin this event in his favor? What’s the most effective way to convert tragedy into power? You start by hopping on all the airwaves and wondering aloud if this was an act of terror or an act of God. Next probable step: Building a militia, presumably comprised of Big Jim’s favorite hicks.

Barbie: Dale “Barbie” Barbara is a former military man and a murderer. The Twin Peaks–ish murder tease didn’t happen in the novel, so we’re all on the same playing field as far as figuring that out. How about the moment when Barbie introduces himself, though? Not even he, as a character, nor an actor, is into this name. Imagine the battles at CBS, trying to just kill King’s eccentric name and stick the lead with a typically masculine handle. When we learn it’s the lovely Julia’s husband whom Barbie killed, Barbie’s arc is set: Go martyr or go home. The man needs redemption.

Junior: He looks like Andy Samberg if Andy Samberg were a character on The O.C. He’s the first person to ever nonchalantly dub college a “lame-ass pyramid scheme.” He’s also corny, dishing up groaners like, “I have loved you — since the third grade.” He swings a switchblade around, never the mark of a good dude. Junior is clearly some sort of sociopath — he almost accidentally kills his girlfriend, then locks her in an underground bunker. Ew. He is the Cujo or the Pennywise of this saga, utterly terrifying, gross, and unfathomably violent. The pilot does a great job saving up the reveal that Junior, who is clearly someone’s son, is the offspring of our other menace-maker, Big Jim.

Julia Shumway: A newspaperwoman with hair from an Herbal Essences commercial and a #troubledmarriage (revealed incredibly frankly: “my husband isn’t here because he’s having an affair” … oh). Shumway’s marriage will be in a tougher spot when she finds out her new, also impossibly attractive buddy Barbie murdered her husband. For now, Shumway is going to be our best shot at an audience representative within the show, asking all the questions we need answers to.

Deputy Linda Esquivel: She’s got a firefighter fiancé, which is a great way for us to learn that (a) all of the firefighters and much of the law enforcement are outside the dome, since they were helping with a neighboring town’s parade, and (b) the dome will separate plenty of loved ones. Begin the countdown to someone kissing someone else through the dome.

Chief Duke Perkins: Duke is Frank Lapidus from Lost. Same actor, same look, same gruff demeanor. Duke has been involved in some illicit something-something with Big Jim, and we’re not going to know what for a little while. As we learn through a cliché-ridden exchange between Big Jim and Duke (“I did what I had to do to keep this town from goin’ broke, to keep it safe!”), the sheriff is kinda just a figurehead — Jim pulls all strings in Chester’s Mill.

Joe and Angie McAlister: Their parents were out of town on Dome Day. (Dome alone! Don’t tell the dome the babysitter’s dead!) Joe and Angie come from a farm, which is how Joe meets Barbie and gets to see both a split-in-half cow and a severed body part that rains from the heavens. Angie is the ex-girlfriend and recent captive of psychotic Junior.

Phil Bushey and Dodee Weaver: Bleedingly hip teens with a Glen Hansard record on the wall and Björk references in their pockets, they run the local radio station.

Carolyn, Alice, and Norrie: An interracial lesbian couple raising a daughter who got a seizure 'cause of the dome.

Rose Twitchell: Owns and operates the local diner. Seems nice. Has a grudge with Denny’s. Makes sense.

Andrea Grinell: The lady Julia Shumway drives to talk to, the one with the scarf and the lawn full o’ junk. Andrea’s one of the only people who suspects something’s up with all the propane coming into town.

The Dome: The very picture of setting-as-character. The dome emanates spacey sounds. It kills cell-phone service and gives select children seizures and visions of stars. It may or may not get explained soon. Readers of The Stand, who I’m sure outnumber Dome veterans, know the 1978 opus never explained its humanity-decimating superflu. Dome as a novel gives a wonky, outta-left-field explanation in the eleventh hour (please don’t spoil in the comments). I’d be shocked if the TV show doesn’t change that explanation. (“We pitched Stephen a far-out, big-swing [ending] for if we’re lucky enough for this to go several years, and he was so excited about it,” Brian K. Vaughan tells TVLine.) But why does the dome only zap people the first time? And why are people re-touching something that just electrocuted them?

I’m encouraged the powers that be didn’t lean more toward stereotypes for these characters. There seems to be lots to explore, and we’ll be doing it within the consternating circumstances of a dome. I’m slightly fatigued wondering if I should care about all of these characters when so many will end up getting DOMED — like The Walking Dead and Lost, lots of characters means lots of dramatic deaths.

I’m mostly looking forward to the feelings of shame and guilt that rise up underneath this pesky dome. There’s already been an overt question of “Why Chester’s Mill?” It’s only a matter of time before the blame starts flying around, which brings us back to that dark and ominous tone. Part of this show’s allure demands that we understand and believe how uncomfortable this situation is, how suffocating it already feels to be inside that dome. The dome’s silencing effect is eerie. The military presence on the other side — and its total impotence — is creepy. Allie’s monologue about her pet goldfish devouring each other is off-putting and prophetic. The closing shot, zooming out from the dome and giving us the world’s news reports, is terrific.

Stray Observations

• This show is dying to be watched on a giant TV with surround sound. (Neither are enjoyed by your humble recapper.) It’s that kind of blockbustery feeling.

• Big Jim twice says “we’re all in this together.” It’s sardonic, since you already know he’s the villain, and it’s probably going to recur. The novel calls on a lyric — “it’s a small town, son, and we all support the team” — from a James McMurty song. It’s cheesy, how everyone in the town seems to have the same song in their head. I like the show’s version better. Also because it’s the title of a novella by one of King’s two author sons, Owen King.

• When the dome hit, I started waiting for an “it’s a bird! It’s a plane!” type of escalation, and sure enough it came. “It’s a fence! It’s a wall!” Nope, it’s a dome.

• Loved the firefighter’s faceplant on the dome.

• Anyone else experience the radio station’s “our ratings are gonna be uh-mazing!” moment as CBS wishfully thinking out loud?

• Let’s talk about The Simpsons Movie for one (1) second. Yes, at first glance it’s the same thing as Under the Dome. Know what else could be described as superficially identical? Mad Men and Pan Am. Stephen King and Dean Koontz. A cigarette and a piece of chalk. C’mon now. No more Simpsons Movie talk necessary.

Photo: Michael Tackett/CBS