To anyone who has been around the block a few times with Stephen King miniseries, “Under the Dome” — which CBS is shrewdly scheduling as a summer fling — has all the familiar trappings and initial promise. A small community of disparate characters is faced with an extraordinary situation and strange mystery, leaving viewers to puzzle over a larger riddle while hopefully getting drawn into individual stories. If it’s like most King adaptations, the payoff seldom equals the build-up, but in the opening salvo, King’s latest “Twilight Zone”-like premise clearly has the potential to get under one’s skin.
The characters of Chester’s Mill are busily going about their lives — and in the case of a visitor nicknamed Barbie (Mike Vogel), burying a corpse — when a giant invisible dome suddenly appears around the town, splitting an unfortunate cow in twain and creating an impenetrable barrier, as unlucky small-plane pilots and motorists quickly discover.
Who or what’s responsible? Nobody knows, with early fingers pointed at everything from extraterrestrials to the government, with Barbie dismissing the latter possibility by saying simply, “It works.” (Too bad this isn’t an election year, since that would have created perfect sponsorship opportunities for the Tea Party.)
Produced by Neal Baer and Brian K. Vaughan (who adapted King’s book), “Dome” has assembled a solid cast, including Rachelle Lefevre as the local newspaper editor looking into what’s happened, Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) as the car dealer/town elder, Britt Robertson as a young resident, and Natalie Martinez as a deputy sheriff. (Both Lefevre and Robertson are veterans, incidentally, of another too-short-lived CBS summer tryout, “Swingtown.”)
King’s material enjoyed a splendidly commercial stretch on ABC — with boffo ratings for multipart productions like “It,” “The Stand,” “Storm of the Century” and “The Shining” — before the author’s work began to yield diminishing returns. Even before that, though, the narrative come-ons and unsatisfying endings started to feel a trifle needful.
In the current environment, CBS and the diminished pressure of a summer run — coupled with demand from international buyers — provide a more logical home for this Steven Spielberg-backed exercise.
That said, there’s still the little matter of juggling these various characters, advancing the mystery and ultimately resolving why Chester’s Mill was chosen to be sequestered from the outside world, in a manner that won’t leave viewers feeling like they ran into their own version of an invisible brick wall.
While that’s not impossible, history shows the operation is as delicate as balancing a phone book-sized King tome on top of a pin. CBS hasn’t ruled out future seasons, although the project would probably be more interesting if it promised one thing the Dome lacks,namely, a clearly marked exit.
Still, if the show eventually becomes another of King’s made-for-TV letdowns, at least we can look back and paraphrase Bart Simpson — who, as will be acknowledged within the series, experienced his own run-in with an over-sized dome in “The Simpsons Movie” — and say, “Don’t halve a cow, dude.”