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TV Tonight: Under the Dome

CBS's Stephen King–based snowglobe scenario asks: what if your little community suddenly became the entire world?

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Michael Tackett / CBS

At one point on Lost, Desmond attempts to escape the Island by sailboat, only to find himself driven, despite the readings of his compass, right back to the place where he began. “This is all there is left,” he tells Jack. “This ocean and this place here. We are stuck in a bloody snowglobe.”

That statement could be the jumping-off point for CBS’s Stephen King–based summer experiment, Under the Dome, about the residents of a Maine town who find themselves stuck in a bloody snowglobe in a more literal way. The title says it all: one day, as life in Chester’s Mill, Me., goes on, an invisible dome-shaped force-field slams into place in the perimeter around the town. Unlike in Lost, the final question of the series’ first promising episode is not “Where are we?” but “What (and why) is this thing?”

Those questions look to drive the show’s 13-episode season, as the first hour introduces us familiarizes us with the townies and their new cage. How does the dome work? No clue, though it jams electronic transmissions and sound, and it’s firmly impermeable, as the characters demonstrate repeatedly by feeling it up in a way that does Marcel Marceau proud. How strong is it? Put it this way: you do not want to be a cow standing on the town border when it drops. (The things Damien Hirst could do with access to a force-field dome!)

The “why” promises to be the most compelling part of the story moving ahead: a town councilman (Dean Norris) and the local police chief seem to be clued in to what’s going on, to no apparently good purpose, and while most of the residents of Chester’s Mill struggle with being in a state of under-glass imprisonment, others have been stockpiling propane. Again like Lost—not to belabor an unfair comparison—the premiere of Under the Dome knows that it’s enough to toss out the right questions at first, then allow its characters to develop in the way they react to the uncertainty.

In Lost, those character dynamics were driven by a group of strangers being trapped together in a place they’d never been and discovering commonalities. In Under the Dome, it’s a town of people who (mostly) know one another, now stuck together, and discovering things about themselves and their neighbors under forced togetherness.

It’s a potentially interesting way of dramatizing and heightening the state of small-town claustrophobia: what if this little place, which seemed like the whole world, suddenly essentially became the entire world? Would your community become self-supporting or stifling? Would it be uplifting or a nightmare? The pilot sets up these sorts of small-world scenarios—the stalkery jilted boyfriend, the preening local bigwig, the mistrusted outsider—and shows how they’re heightened by sudden captivity.

That’s the biggest potential strength of Under the Dome. A weakness is that few of its characters are instantly memorable or distinctive; there’s a kind of generic, TV-commercial homogeneity to the Chester’s Mill we first see. But the opening glimpses of the first episode are intriguing enough for me to want to stick around and get to know these characters better—as it looks like they’ll have to, whether they like it or not.