It’s pretty cool when the giant, transparent dome suddenly materializes over Chester’s Mill, Maine, and slices a cow exactly in half. Don’t worry, faint of heart and animal lovers everywhere; the makers of “Under the Dome” don’t show us any artful gut splatter or a “CSI”-style still life of organic matter. The slice is clean. Then birds fall from the sky after flying into the dome, and so does a plane. Radios and TVs cut off, and a few people have seizures and start muttering nonsense about the stars.
For a moment, this CBS adaptation of Stephen King’s novel evokes the strange, claustrophobic horror of getting locked inside a fishbowl — an actual fishbowl, not the fake camera-driven ones of “Big Brother” and “The Real World.” It seems as though “Under the Dome” could turn out to be diverting summer entertainment, one that CBS will bring back next year if this 13-episode run is popular. In the spirit of TNT’s “Falling Skies,” the show, which premieres Monday night at 10, promises popcorn thrills about an apocalyptic event and a bunch of survivors.
But then so much is working against “Under the Dome,” it’s hard to get genuinely excited. While the initial arrival of the dome is intriguing, the characters are not. This is a cast of types, led by a mysterious stranger named Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel), who gets trapped in town after burying a body in the woods. Dean Norris, Hank from “Breaking Bad,” is the powerful local bad guy, Alexander Koch is his psychotic son, Rachelle Lefevre is an ace newspaper reporter, and Britt Robertson is the ironic teen girl who felt trapped in Chester’s Mill before she actually got trapped. You’ve met them before, on other ensemble sci-fi series.
Executive producer Brian K. Vaughan adapted the King novel, and he does very little to make these and the other characters interesting. They’re the kinds of constructs who seem to tell you at first glance who they are and will always be, from the good but simple teen (Colin Ford) to the noble cop (Natalie Martinez). Sometimes, perhaps in an effort to assure viewers of what they’ll be getting if they commit to a series, writers will stunt their characters’ potential in the pilot, in order to make them easier to buy into. Maybe there will be some unexpected personality shifts in the weeks to come, but I doubt it.
And then the whole concept of a group of people stuck together in the middle of an elaborate cosmic mystery has been done to death in recent years, since “Lost” was a hit and since 9/11 gave extra resonance to the sight of citizens under menace. Just the thought of watching one more “Lord of the Flies”-like social microcosm, after TV’s countless “Lost” wannabes including “Revolution,” is thoroughly exhausting.
CBS sent only one review episode to critics, so it’s hard to know what direction the show will take after the dome setup material, particularly for those who haven’t read the book. But if “Under the Dome” is successful and CBS decides to order a second season for next summer, you can bet that Big Answers will be withheld and the story line will start to tread water. Vaughan wrote for “Lost,” which was also a template for the way a show can spin out of control because of all the filler created to keep it moving for many seasons.
When the “Under the Dome” folks try to dig their way out of the dome and come across a hatch, don’t say I didn’t warn you.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.