Review: Under the Dome (TV)

written by David Steffen

Over the summer, CBS aired the first season of a TV series based on Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome (which I reviewed right here in 2010). To sum up, I thought the book overall was very good, as King’s strongest point is interactions between a large cast of characters, especially in the claustrophobic social environment of a small town.

Fair warning, I’m not going to make an effort to avoid spoilers here, because I can’t think of how to discuss the shows failings without verging into spoiler territory. To be fair, not a lot happened in the season that I would consider important enough to worry about a spoiler warning, but be aware of this. Quick summary version: Read the book instead and expect a decent read but a crappy ending.

First off, if you have read the book, the show will probably drive you completely nuts because they are not the same story. The extent of what they have in common: A mysterious and more-or-less impenetrable barrier inexplicably cuts the town of Chester’s Mill off from the rest of the world. Dale Barbara is a veteran. Julia Shumway is a reporter. Big Jim Rennie is the major political force, and is an asshole but likes to pretend he’s not one. That is the extent of the similarities. The characteristics of the dome are different. The nature of many of the characters are very different. Some characters who die immediately in the book are major characters in the show. The events are very different. The dome (apparently) does not even have remotely the same cause, though the season ended before revealing a great deal, but enough to make it clear that the ending in the book is not going to happen.

My opinion of the show might be somewhat tainted by the fact that I thought it was a miniseries, one which was preplanned, taped entirely in advance, and would run for a finite period and then stop. I thought that right up until the season finale when the story just ends. It’s not even a cliffhanger, but as if the writers said “oh crap I ran out of space, what do I do, what do I do, oh crap I’m going to get fired, oh crap. Oh I know! inexplicable ending–boom! Done!” This frustrated me to no end because the pace was so slow and the writing so bad that the only reason I’d watched the whole season (usually while doing Grinder maintenance or cross-stitching because the slowness was just ridiculous) was because I wanted to find out how they ended it in the TV series. It was a huge waste of time to watch the whole season. When the rest of it comes out I’m just going to get the Cliff’s Notes version of it.

The quality of the writing on the show is it’s biggest downfall. Some of the dialog is just so awkward it would be funny if it weren’t also a frustrating waste of time. I give credit to the actors who actually managed to pull off the lines as best they could pull off. Really, most of the casting was reasonably good, with the high point being Dean Norris as Big Jim Rennie–he pulls off the nasty small-town politician vibe with incredible effect.

The worst cases of the bad writing were all cases where someone confronts Big Jim Rennie about his behavior, suspicions of drug-dealing and murder, etc… He generally sticks to the explanation that he’s doing bad things for the good of the town, and this works shockingly often, even with the sheriff herself even after he has basically admitted to committing murder. The sheriff, played by Natalie Martinez, is about the only casting choice I think was questionable. Everything about her stance, expression, and voice lacks self-confidence, which is problematic for a policewoman, but more so for a sheriff. Granted, this is a relatively small town and she only becomes sheriff due to events in the show, but still I found her character very hard to take seriously, even more so when she bows to Big Jim Rennie’s more transparent bullshit. It just seemed like the writers wrote themselves into a highly tense corner that plausibly could only end with someone ending up dead, but then wrote themselves out of it by making a character implausibly gullible just long enough to move to the next scene.

I got the sense in many of the episodes that each one was written with a brief description of what came before and no idea what will come after, in isolation, by different writers, because it feels much too episodic either for a miniseries or for a series based around a major mysterious event. Often a new character is introduced, sometimes halfway through the season, and then is treated as if they’ve been a longstanding important character, sometimes dying shortly thereafter as if we’d been given enough time to care at all what has happened to them. There’s even an episode, a single episode, that centers around a fight club that gets started in the town to gamble with provisions–it is not mentioned before that episode and it is abolished by the end of the episode and it’s never mentioned again. What the hell? I mean, I’m a Chuck Palahniuk fan as much as the next guy, but that just came out of nowhere. The end result is that most episodes seem to kind of meander in their own direction, a direction which then changes completely for the next episode, having only the narrow main thread to follow from episode to episode.

And that main thread is weird, and completely unrelated to the book, all having to do with the origins of the dome which have a much more mystical, mythical, fantasy feel here with prophecies and inexplicable omens and messages from the dead than in the book where they were straight up science fiction. I don’t know if I dislike that element so much because it has nothing to do with the book, or just because I find the elements hokey in their own right. I don’t know. I kind of wanted to find out where they were going with these elements but only enough to watch to the end of what I thought was a miniseries. I wonder if other people who’d read the book were sticking around for the same reason–maybe the second season will tank and we’ll find out the answer without having to wait years. Then again, I get the impression that literally no one knows how it’s going to end, it’ll just be another Stephen King “pull it out of my ass” resolutions–like the book itself, but it’ll have to be different.

One of the greatest tragedies in the transition from book to show is the villainization of the character Dale “Barbie” Barbara. In the book he’s an ex-military vagrant taking short-order cook jobs and the like, who is just trying to leave town after he hurt someone in self-defense, but the dome blocks him before he can leave. In the show he’s ex-military, but he’s taken a job as a violent enforcer for a local gambling kingpin, and spends his days beating the tar out of gambling addicts who can’t pay up. In this case he’s actually killed one of these poor saps, who turns out to be the husband of Julia Shumway who he soon strikes up a romantic relationship with. And while he does some good things in the story, I never felt like he regretted anything bad he did, nor redeemed himself for it. In the TV show he’s little different than Big Jim Rennie, both of them are immoral assholes who get high on being seen as a hero but have no compunctions about killing whoever becomes inconvenient to further their goals. The late-season reveal that Mr. Shumway had been suicidal and provoked Barbie so that insurance wouldn’t balk at a suicide, seemed more of a cheap afterthought by the writers to redeem the character. I didn’t buy it–Mr. Shumway’s motivations are irrelevant to Barbie’s, so it doesn’t redeem anything. The core of the book was my empathy for Barbie, so when that’s taken away it’s very hard to care about anyone.

So, overall, the show has been a waste of time, though I’ll still look up a summary of how it ends. As I said in the intro: Read the book instead and expect a decent read but a crappy ending.

Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

by David Steffen

Stephen King is not known for his brevity. Many of his books are above the 500-page mark, with a few surpassing 1000. This can be good or bad. I never minded the longer books until I started writing, but now it’s hard to look at a 1000-page book and wish it had been trimmed down. Not that I only like short books, but I like a story that is exactly as long as it needs to be. Every part has some purpose, whether it moves the plot forward, illuminates character background, or a variety of other purposes.

Some of his books, like Duma Key are just far too long, and start much too slowly. In that book, there’s not much in the way of plot until about 3/4 of the way through at which point everything suddenly happens all at once. His recent novel Cell is not long by King standards, only a few hundred pages, but it seems long because the characters are not his usual well-rounded sort. They’re little more than placeholders, one-dimensional and uninteresting.

But when he finds a story and a cast of characters that merits the length, he can really make that cast come to life. This was the reason I really loved It and The Stand despite their gargantuan length. And now I can add Under the Dome to that list.


The premise is absurdly simple to explain–it’s the cast that makes it interesting. An invisible, impenetrable, and apparently indestructible barrier inexplicably appears along the boundary of a small town in Maine. Yes, in Maine. If I had a nickel for every inexplicable and paranormal event that occurs in Maine in Stephen King’s stories, I’d never have to work again. I do wish that he’d try some other settings once in a while. Write what you know, I suppose, but I think Mr. King could afford some traveling to make his settings more diverse. Anyway, so that’s basically it. No one knows where the dome came from, not even the government. Because the barrier is invisible, most of the boundaries are found first on the highway when cars smash into it. It also extends down into the ground, severing telephone and power lines. This inconvenience is alleviated somewhat because many of the rural Maine folk have generators, but it causes problems here and there, and they’re limited to the amount of propane they have on hand to run the gennies.

Now, populate this little town with a diverse cast from a pack of skateboarding teens to reporters to doctors to government officials, and we throw in our hero who is naturally an outsider. Dale Barbara, known to most as Barbie, is just headed out of town after a recent bar fight with some of the town’s less savory youth. Barbie is ex-military, hitchhiking around the countryside, and had stopped here for a while, but he’s decided it’s time to move on. The barrier pops into existence just before he’s able to leave town. Early on in the story he tries to mind his own business, but Big Jim Rennie, the power-hungry politician who runs the town, has a grudge against Barbie (it was Jim Rennie Jr. who Barbie bested in the bar fight). There are all kinds of conflicts going on in this town, many of them centering around Big Jim, a man you can truly love to hate. Among other things, the accidental death of the police chief leaves the police force in the palm of Big Jim’s hand. Without a chance of outside intervention, Big Jim is a dangerous man. He’s enough of a nasty character to be a threatening enemy without crossing the line into cartoon villain.

My Views

Overall, I very much liked the book, and I’d recommend it if you’re interested for a long haul. There were a few things that bothered me, though.

One thing that bothered me about the book is that no one, in general, seems that interested in figuring out why the barrier is there or how to get past it. There are a few dedicated individuals trying to deal with this, but for the most part people are just living their everyday lives under there altered in the minimum way to deal with their newfound seclusion.

Another thing that really bugged me seems to just be a problem with his technical research. It could’ve been fixed without substantially changing the plot, so it just annoys me that King didn’t realize it. A thirty second Google search could’ve found more accurate information. More on this in the Spoiler section, just in case you want to try to find the technical flub on your own.

There are occasional sections in the book, thankfully VERY occasional, where instead of telling the story in 3rd person close point of view, Stephen King writes a section as himself. I found this very irritating. He seems to think this writer’s voice is charming, but really it was grating. Ideally, I never think of the writer at all when I’m reading a story. I want to sink into the world and not surface again until I’m done reading. And speaking from the author’s voice ruins that. Example from the book, a section starts with “We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester’s Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an an instant has passed since …” I can like the occasional omniscient narrator, but mentioning the “magic of narration” is a worthless gimmick that he only gets away with because he’s Stephen King, He Who Shall Not Be Edited.

Though I’d recommend the book overall, there are definitely slow patches. At least 150 pages could be cut from the middle without harming the story. But it starts with a bang, and ends with a bang, so if you can power through that mid-book slump, I think you’ll enjoy it. And, though the ending section has lots going on, the actual manner in which it resolves wasn’t all that satisfying.


Okay, so there are a couple spoiler-based things I’d like to complain about in this book.

1. The technical flub I referenced earlier. When the barrier pops into place, it’s not just above ground, but slices down below at least 50 feet (as far as they try to dig). This means that it severs any kind of utility lines laid within the ground. Electricity and phone services are cut off, which makes sense, but they still have internet access. Mr. King justifies this simply by calling it WiFi. Now, I realize there are forms of internet access that pass data via satellite, but those are very rare and very expensive. And are not called WiFi. Likewise, you can run a cell phone WiFi hotspot, but neither of these seem to be what King was referring to. Maybe he doesn’t have WiFi at home, but your standard WiFi is only wireless in the sense that your computer is untethered. The computer is sending signals to your wireless router, which then sends signals through your wall through your cable jack or phone line–both of which would’ve been severed. The plot never hinged upon having the internet available, so it would’ve been easy to just remove it.

2. The ending was rather weak. Like I said earlier, almost nobody is really interested in trying to figure out what put the dome in place or how to take it down. A long way into the story someone does find the generator, a little bit of alien technology sitting on the tallest hill in town. Touching it connects you telepathically with alien lifeforms who have apparently put the barrier in place just as a form of entertainment. The device is immovable, and putting a lead shield over it just melts the lead shield. When they realize that neither of these things work, they just give up and don’t try anything else until the very end of the book. Me, I’d be blasting it with dynamite, pouring acid on it, placing a lead shield at a distance without touching it to the device, etc… At the end, everything takes a turn for the worse, fires run rampant, and the fresh air is very limited. Almost everyone dies. (I’m happy to say that one dog actually survives! King seems to have a vendetta against dogs, they never survive in one piece, except for this one). As a desparate last ditch effort, a few of the characters go back to the device and they beg for their lives to the aliens. And the aliens lift the barrier and then the book is pretty much over. Seriously? No one thought of that before? Why wait until almost everyone is dead? It seemed to me that he just got to the end of what he’d planned and said “oh shit, how do I get them out of this now?” and wrote it on the fly.