Much as I like the book that the series is based upon, 'Under the Dome' can be frustrating to get through. Stephen King's novel was a chore, not because it wasn't a great read, but because that baby weighed about five pounds, and after holding it for an hour or so, your wrists started to give way. The TV show is slightly different, in that it takes no effort to sit through, but it sometimes makes you want to slash those same wrists.
For those brand-new to both the book and the series, the premise is rather simple. The small, northeastern town of Chester's Mill is suddenly trapped under a clear, but impenetrable dome. Air can make it through the dome, as can condensation, but little else – meaning the citizenship is trapped inside with dwindling resources and no obvious way of replenishing them. While the dome's origin and purpose are one of the series' big ongoing mysteries, the show is really about what happens to a small group of people when they're cut off from the rest of civilization.
Because of the many characters in King's novel, 'Under the Dome' always seemed like a great idea for an ongoing television series (as opposed to, say a movie or mini-series), but since King's novel takes place in the course of just a handful of days, obvious changes needed to take place with some of the characters for the leap to TV. So while the names and general personalities of most of the novel's characters remain, from the pilot episode alone it becomes quite obvious that the series isn't going to remain loyal to the book.
Without going into too much depth or revealing too many plot points, the hero of the series (so far) is an outsider by the name of Dale Barbara (aka 'Barbie'), who gets trapped inside the dome when he's disposing of a dead body in the woods surrounding the town. There's also local newspaper editor, Julia Shumway, who soon finds herself involved with Barbie in more ways than one. The town has a new female sheriff (thanks to the dome causing the pacemaker of the old sheriff to explode), as well as a group of teens, headed up by Joe McAlister, who are essentially the 'Scooby Gang' of the series – going around and trying to figure out what the dome is and what it wants from the town.
However, the most important character in 'Under the Dome' isn't the good guy – it's the bad guy, Jim Rennie, played wonderfully by Breaking Bad's Dean Norris. For as 'cardboard cutout' as many of the other characters of the series feel, Norris' 'Big Jim' is a delight to watch. His character is a used car salesman who also happens to be Chester Mill's councilman and views the dome's arrival as a way of establishing his own little dictatorship over the citizenry. Like a J.R. Ewing or a Ben Linus, he's the one character you love to hate.
Sadly, despite having some good actors in place, the writers and producers still seem unsure where this journey is going or how to get there. For example, in early episodes, Rennie's son, Junior (who was a complete psychopath in the novel), locks up his girlfriend Angie in his father's bomb shelter where he all but tortures her. By the end of Season One, these two characters are close to being a couple again, despite his actions. 'Big Jim' himself isn't immune to such writing changes. Early on, he's more of a manipulator than anything else, but it isn't long before he murders one of the townsfolk. Then, the writers go on a string of deaths that 'Big Jim' is behind to the point where viewers will wonder if they'll get through a show without Rennie offing someone. Even the background characters don't show any consistency, as the writers use the general population for whatever the current episode needs them for. In one episode they're banding together to put out a fire, then a few shows later they're rioting and looting the local businesses. In one of the more laughable moments, they're praying in church for forgiveness and then just a few hours later gathered in town square to support a lynching.
One episode where the writers do get it right is in the serie's fifth episode, 'Blue on Blue', where the townspeople have all gathered underground for a military missile strike on the dome that will almost surely kill everyone inside. To the tune of Skeeter Davis' 'End of the World', viewers get a wonderful montage of scenes where characters prepare for and face their own mortality. It's a great segment (in an otherwise average episode) that shows the kind of series 'Under the Dome' could be if the producers put a little more heart into what they're presenting.
Despite all its problems, 'Under the Dome' is still highly watchable stuff. For all the inconsistencies and downright laughable things that some of these characters do, I can't say the show is ever boring. That's certainly reflected in the ratings, as 'Under the Dome' was this past summer's most watched drama series. If you go into it not expecting too much, chances are you'll very much enjoy your visit under the dome.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Under The Dome' arrives on Blu-ray in an attractive bit of packaging, starting with a very sturdy carboard box where the top third pulls off of to reveal the digipack inside. The fold-out digipack holds the four 50GB dual-layer discs on plastic hubs that are glued to the backing. While I haven't seen an actual DVD set yet, from the photos online, it appears as if those discs are packaged the same way. There are no front-loaded trailers on any of the discs, and each feature a menu with the logo of the series on the right and the curved outline of the dome on the left, with a video montage of the series playing inside the dome graphic. Menu selections take up the bottom part of the screen, and open up to additional selections, where applicable. Each episode (as well as the bonus featurettes) are presented in the 1.78:1 format.
In addition to the Blu-ray and DVD sets that are available through retailers, Amazon is offering an exclusive limited edition Blu-ray release that is different in a number of ways. First, it houses the discs inside a small dome replica of Chester's Mill. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for collectors, the Amazon release contains four additional featurettes that are not available on the standard Blu-ray release. They are titled as follows: Stephen King Visits Big Jim's Car Dealership; The Visual Effects of 'Under the Dome'; 'Under The Dome': Executing the Finale; and The Wilmington Pilot Premiere. Since CBS did not provide High-Def Digest with the limited edition discs, I cannot comment on either the length or quality of these featurettes.
'Under the Dome' is a digitally shot television series, so – as one might expect – the quality of the video is quite nice on this Blu-ray release. Aside from some very minor aliasing that creeps its way into a scene here or a scene there in various episodes, the image is crisp, colorful, and full of detail. While some of the interior-shot sequences look a little softer, the footage shot outdoors (of which there is plenty) is wonderful to look at, even during night scenes, where the black levels are deep and inky. Skin tones are properly balanced throughout. I watched every 'Under the Dome' episode over the summer, and I must say that the Blu-ray is a big step up in quality compared to broadcast HD. The shows look great on Blu-ray.
I was simply delighted by the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that is available for each episode on this set. While a lot of the show is dialogue heavy, each episode provides enough action for one's speakers to really kick in. Take, for example, the pilot episode where the dome first seals itself into place. The low-end rumblings followed by the slamming down of the dome provide for a nice immersive experience. Later in the run, there's a show where the dome kind of throws a 'hissy fit', resulting in an almost tornado-like incident. Here again, the immersiveness is wonderful, and the directionality of the speakers adds a lot of fun to the show.
The 5.1 track is also nicely balanced so the spoken dialogue is never drown out by either the musical soundtrack or other sound effects. Everything is crisp and clear, and free of any noticeable defects. In addition to the lossless 5.1 track detailed above, a 2.0 stereo track is also an option for each episode. Subtitles are available in both English SDH and Spanish.
'Under the Dome' is often a series that will try your patience, as characters' motives and actions seem to have more to do with what the writers need to accomplish in an episode rather than any internal logic. With that in mind, I can't say I was ever truly bored by any of the 13 episodes in this first season. Add to that the standout performance by Dean Norris as the lead villain of the show, and 'Under the Dome' falls into recommended territory.