CBS’ ‘Under the Dome’ bringing thrills from King, Spielberg
WILMINGTON, N.C. — Inside a 10-foot-tall cylinder a few miles from the beach, actress Britt Robertson is chained to a bedpost.
The petite 23-year-old is being held captive by her (fictional) ex-boyfriend, a possessive young man named Junior who’s played, with a kind of hair-swooping spaciness, by newcomer Alex Koch.
“I brought you some eggs,” Koch tells Robertson in the scene, sounding at once nurturing and creepy.
Her wrists tightly bound, Robertson nonetheless lets her face soften from anger to seduction and helps him dress a wound. Koch replies with an attempt at reassurance. “Everything will go back to the way it was,” he says, “as soon as we get out from under this dome.”
“This dome” — dramatic device, title conceit, mystical force — refers to the nearly invisible bubble that literally drops out of the sky one day to trap a small American town in “Under the Dome,” one of the splashiest and most scrutinized summer series of recent years.
After a wave of promotion that began at the Super Bowl, CBS premieres the first of 13 episodes on June 24. The network is not only entering a scripted summer space it has until now largely avoided but is also attempting a tricky creative feat: big-budget genre storytelling with intimate insights about humans in crisis.
“We don’t want to be preachy, this is still pulpy and fun,” declared Jack Bender, the “Lost” veteran who executive-produces “Dome” and directs several of its episodes. “But the show does have something to say about our social structures.”
With Bender, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, the comic book writer author Brian K. Vaughan and longtime “ER” writer-producer Neal Baer among its executive producers, “Under the Dome’s” credit sequence has enough star power to light up a small city. Which, incidentally, this electricity-sapped town could use.
Based on King’s phone book-sized novel — and with a serious-mindedness that diverges from a similar premise in, of all things, “The Simpsons Movie” — “Dome” showcases an ensemble of characters cut off from both the world and many essential resources by the inexplicable dome, which, when it first falls, also crushes anything it lands on.
Among those trapped in the town (Chester’s Mill, Maine, in the book but in an unspecified state here) are Julia (Rachelle Lefevre), a persistent journalist with some skeletons in her closet; Barbie (Mike Vogel), a mysterious military man with some secrets of his own; Junior’s father, Big Jim (Dean Norris), a town mover-and-shaker who promptly begins taking advantage of the situation (“The thing about Big Jim is, he thinks what he’s doing is right,” Norris says with some glee); Junior (Koch), who sees in the chaos a misguided way to win back his ex, and Angie (Robertson), a pretty waitress and hospital volunteer who in the early episodes finds herself in the shackled predicament.
“Someone said she was being a [jerk],” Robertson said, using a harsher word. “And I said, ‘Do you understand the circumstance?!’”
There is also a wide assortment of teenagers, police officers, diner patrons and other denizens of King’s America.
All of them must solve the mystery — possibly supernatural, possibly conspiratorial — of the dome while negotiating the paranoia and in-fighting that sets in during a hometown emergency. Think “Lost,” only this time the island comes to them.
Though there are many genre overtones, actors say they think the show will resonate because its world is in fact familiar.
“People have been saying we’re like ‘Revolution’ or ‘The Walking Dead,’” Lefevre said, kicking off her flip-flops as she sat on a part of the set built to look like an independent radio station. “But this isn’t a post-apocalyptic show. These people are in their homes the same way they were before anything happened. It’s more like, ‘What if you were stuck in your house and the door was glued shut?’ What kind of bad choices would you make, and would they be different from the bad choices you make during normal life?”
Baer and Vaughan see in it something even more global. Though there are few explicit environmental themes in “Dome,” the idea of a civilization facing shortages aligns with the real world.
“It’s a parable for our times,” Baer said. “We’re running out of fuel and water, and a lot of things that are happening on the show are happening to us — just slower, so we don’t notice it.”
Added Vaughan: “Planet Earth is surrounded by a dome, and we’re all trapped here too,” saying that Spielberg even told him that the show had things in common with the director’s “Lincoln.” “It’s about how you build a democracy from the ground up,” Vaughan recalled the director saying.
Originally submitted as a film and later developed as a Showtime series, “Dome” eventually migrated to corporate sister CBS, whose executives had quietly been observing the success cable has found with summer originals and wanted a go-to property.
If it works, the show could be renewed for next summer or even get a winter run, say executives. “Our feeling is that this show, with the people behind it and the kind of storytelling they bring, can have a run well beyond this summer if everything goes well,” said CBS’ president of entertainment Nina Tassler.
She acknowledged that it’s the most serialized of CBS shows currently on the air but said the division of the season into essentially three chapters of three or four episodes each--as well as a unique streaming deal with Amazon that will see episodes available online over the course of the season--will alllow for viewers to enter midway through.
CBS is also banking in large part on the presence of the big names. The show’s principals maintain that these figures offer more than just endorsements. King visited the set during shooting of the first episode and has given what Bender describes as “cheerleading” notes throughout the process. Though delegating day-to-day duties to Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, Spielberg has been engaged too, approving choices as mundane as a production designer and directors for individual episodes.
Meanwhile, the actors bring their own followings, including Vogel from his turn on this year’s “Psycho” prequel series “Bates Motel,” Norris as Walt White’s complicated brother-in-law on “Breaking Bad” and Lefevre from her turn in the “Twilight” film franchise.
The effects could also draw summertime film fans, show runners hope; though they declined to offer a budget figure, they acknowledged that the computer-generated effects associated with the dome do not come cheap, even if the thing itself is mostly invisible.
Back on the Wilmington set (the city was chosen in part because it is in rebate-rich North Carolina but also because it and its surrounding towns offers an abundance of spots with an intimate small-town feeling) some of the remnants of the effects can be seen, including a piece of a plane that has been used in a crash and a fake cow — or rather, half of it, split lengthwise in the first episode when the dome comes down right on it. The show splurges on, and delights in, trappings like this.
“We can have a sense of fun without losing sight of the larger points we want to get across,” Bender said. “‘Lost’ controlled us. I think we can make this big and exciting but still control it.”
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