What is scarier? The fact that a bizarre piece of otherworldly technology has trapped a small town under a transparent dome, or that everybody in the town will be stuck with each other for eternity? In the new series Under the Dome, the answer is "both."
In this series, based on a Stephen King novel and written by Y the Last Man author Brian K. Vaughan, most of the terror comes from the familiar rather than the unfamiliar. Which is a weird thing to say, given that this happens:
On a typical, sunny day in a small town, there's an earthquake and then suddenly a transparent dome descends, slicing through everything in its path. Touching the dome delivers some kind of electric shock. Nobody can hear through the dome, nor can signals penetrate it. That's right — no radio, TV, or internet. So the only way anybody can communicate is by writing on pieces of paper and holding it up to people on the other side of the invisible barrier.
As creepy as the cow slicing scene is, there are worse things in store for us. Which brings me back to the terror of the familiar. Because the real revelation in this pilot episode, thanks to some convincing writing and acting, is that the humans under the dome are far more disturbing than the dome itself.
For example, our sunny small town morning began with a whiskery dude named Barbie burying a guy he'd just killed in the forest. And Barbie is the good guy. There's also the power-mad Big Jim, who sits on the city council and has been stockpiling fuel supplies for reasons I'm sure we'll find out as the season goes on. You know Big Jim is evil because he's played by the DEA guy from Breaking Bad and he laughs like an evil person.
Big Jim's son Junior, though, is the worst of all. He begins the episode by telling his girlfriend Angie that he loves her, and ends it by beating her up and locking her in a fallout shelter. So that happened.
Meanwhile, the town sheriff, one of the only good guys, dies when the dome makes his pacemaker pop. Right before his death, he hints to his deputy, Linda, that he's been involved in some nefarious dealings with Jim — perhaps related to the fuel stockpiles. Sadly, Linda's husband is outside the dome while she's stuck inside.
Finally, our other good guy is a seriously clueless journalist named Julia whose husband has also been involved in deeds so nefarious that Barbie killed him (though we don't know why yet).
Then there are Carolyn and Alice, and their daughter Norrie — a very urban family who just happened to be passing through when things went pear-shaped. What could go wrong for a mixed-race lesbian couple with an emotionally unstable teenage daughter trapped in a town ruled by crazy white men with giant tanks of propane?
So those are our main characters, and in the first episode we already see them jockeying for power. All that's happened so far is that the dome has descended — they haven't even had to deal with running out of food and power and medicine. Which will happen.
And just in case that wasn't creepy enough, the town's only radio station, run by Jolene, is picking up strange alien signals that "sound like Bjork" along with a few radio and satellite signals from outside the dome. Meanwhile, teenagers are having seizures during which they say, "The stars are falling like lines." Outside the dome, the military has created a perimeter and scientists are saying things like, "Holy crap what the hell is this?" So even though Sheriff Pacemaker thinks that "if those eggheads can put a robot on Mars, I'm sure they can figure this out," we're pretty sure they can't.
This first episode was tightly paced and seriously riveting. My main concern at this point is that this is the kind of show that should absolutely be a mini-series. It is too claustrophobic and its plot arc too finite to go on for more than the planned 12 episodes in this first season. If the mysteries are drawn out beyond that I'm going to get the "bad Lost touch" feeling.
Given that the producers have said they're hoping for a second season, I'm already preparing for all these rich mysteries to be diluted into duller mysteries and diminishing narrative returns. Of course, I will be happy to be wrong about that. Because I'm ready for the darkness and horror of this series to get a lot more, well, dark and horrifying. Go on, Under the Dome, convince me that this story goes beyond this first season dome plot! I'll be watching.