Character Rehab: Everyone on 'Under the Dome'
Here at EW, we have a weekly series in which we — and readers — weigh in on ways to rehab much-maligned characters on some of our favorite shows.
Under the Dome is one of the biggest success stories of the summer 2013 TV mini-season. Adapted from the Stephen King novel about a small town cut off from the outside world, Dome earns great ratings in its Monday time slot. It was renewed for a second season and seems destined to become a fixture on the CBS summer calendar. And there is a lot to like about Dome. The first episode introduced a whole array of interesting characters with mysterious backstories, all brought together by the mysterious Dome. Unfortunately, every episode since the pilot has made all of those interesting characters vastly less interesting.
Some people have become one-dimensional: Lead protagonist Barbie (Mike Vogel), introduced as a morally ambiguous fightin’ man burying a corpse in the forest, has become a vanilla-bland hero, with no real stated purpose besides Being a Good Guy. Meanwhile, the show’s kids have spent the back half of the season pressing their hands up against various Domes and restating all the show’s mysteries in exposition-heavy mythology-dumping conversations. But the show also has a problem with giving characters too many dimensions. Big Jim Rennie is by far the show’s most interesting character, thanks to Dean Norris (who, between this and Breaking Bad, is almost certainly the MVP of the summer). But Big Jim whiplashes like crazy between being a mastermind villain and a power-mad thug: He also has that J.J. Abrams Villain Problem, where attempts to “humanize” Big Jim’s villainy (He misses his wife! He loves his son!) just make him seem schizophrenic.
The show turned a corner ever-so-slightly this week, killing off the most ridiculous character and making the Jim/Barbie antagonism explicit. After the next two episodes, the show’s producers will have a whole year to tinker with Dome; here are four suggestions for turning the cast of characters into a force to be reckoned with.
1. Cut back on the Dome. Part of what made Stephen King’s original novel such a great read was that, at a certain point, King didn’t really care about the Dome at all. It was just a handy plot mechanic: A way to send a small town on a Lord of the Flies downward spiral. The book’s explanation of the Dome was basically a non-explanation: King was much more interested in establishing the citizens of Chester’s Mill. The TV show has gone the opposite route, establishing a whole assortment of Dome mythology. There’s a Mini-Dome! And it’s got an Egg! And the Dome speaks to people using visions! And also the Dome can induce early labor in pregnant women! All that Dome takes away valuable time from the inter-character drama. When season 2 starts, there should be a five-episode moratorium on Dome visions, Dome acts-of-god, and anyone saying some variation of the phrase “This is what the Dome wants!”
2. More Game of Thrones, less Lost. One of the main problems with Under the Dome is how quickly the lead characters have become a “gang”: At this point, it feels like everything important in Chester’s Mill happens to the same seven or eight people, who often run into each other walking down the street just in time for an exciting new plot point. This was basically the setup for the first season of Lost, which focused in on the most interesting/attractive survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 and quickly turned them into the Lead Gang of People, while various barely dressed extras hung out in the background. The problem is that Under the Dome thinks it’s Lost, when really, it should be Game of Thrones: A show about different factions of people warring over the same stretch of land in a bid for ultimate power. Imagine how much cooler Dome would be if Barbie and Big Jim were in charge of their own groups of people, with the other characters pulled in various directions and/or playing all sides against each other. The show has actually already engaged in an intriguing amount of world-building, establishing the geography of Chester’s Mill and playing off a historical rivalry between the farmers and the townspeople: Bringing those rivalries to the foreground would give the show more depth, and make it feel less like a Mission-of-the-Week structure. It would also help solve one of the show’s main problems…
3. Give the supporting characters an actual reason to be there. At the start of the season, we learned that Phil Bushey and Dodee Weaver run the local radio station. Eleven episodes in, here’s what we have learned about them: They run the local radio station. (Also, Phil likes to gamble.) Too many of the show’s seem to just exist so that Barbie and Jim have someone to talk to while they’re doing the cool stuff. And then there’s Norrie, the troubled L.A. teen who was trapped inside of the Dome. Norrie initially came off like a hell-raiser, but after one of her moms died and the other one basically disappeared from the show, she’s spent the last few episodes on the Dome trail. “Trying to solve the Mystery of the Show” is not a particularly interesting character arc.
4. Time jump! The easiest way to reboot a show from scratch: Take a giant leap forward in time and kick off the next season with all our characters in radical new circumstances. Right now, part of the problem with all the characters on Under the Dome is that they’re still adjusting to the new Dome-ified status quo; nobody really thinks the Dome will be around for much longer. (Big Jim does, which is also why he’s the best character by a mile.) Let’s jump six months or a year forward and see how Chester’s Mill has come along. Would Big Jim have declared martial law? Would the other characters have formed a guerrilla breakaway society, hiding in the caverns underneath the power station? Maybe in the interim period, other citizens of Chester’s Mill would have come forward to take positions of power — meaning that there could be a role for recently unemployed Walking Dead star Michael Rooker?