I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I’ve come down to one of two conclusions: Either someone at CBS is very, very scared of the future, or someone at CBS is playing a very, very elaborate practical joke on us.
Either way, I love it.
Within a one-week span, CBS will have launched its summer lineup of original dramas: “Under the Dome” kicked off its third season last Thursday, “Extant” Season 2 begins tomorrow, and newcomer “Zoo” premieres tonight. Each show features a high-concept premise, decent-enough production value and a more-than-competent cast of television pros (plus Oscar-winner Halle Berry).
Each show is also, by and large, completely insane.
That is, by CBS’ standards. Because here’s what’s so crazy about it: Of all the broadcast networks, CBS probably has the best defined brand; a brand that also inspires snobbery in most critics, as it’s associated with extremely traditional crime procedurals and multi-camera sitcoms. That’s not an across-the-board attitude. I’ve seen many professional critics actively vocalize support for “Person of Interest” or “Mom.” But they’re often heralded as examples of shows elevating their genres, not a celebration of the genre itself.
During the school year, CBS relies on those genres almost exclusively to keep hold of its market share. For the seventh year in a row, it won the 2014-2015 season in viewers. Then, summer comes. And with summer, comes…
What would happen if a giant transluscent dome consumed an entire small town?
What if all the animals got sick of human oppression and started eating the humans?
What would happen if astronaut Halle Berry got knocked up by an alien?
Those are, respectively, the premises of “Under the Dome,” “Zoo” and “Extant.” They are all presented as matter-of-factly as premises like “crime scene investigators solve crime” or “a messy guy and a clean guy become roommates.” But, y’know, they’re not. They’re shows with subplots involving anti-robot terrorists or lion attacks in the middle of Los Angeles or people being consumed by butterfly attacks and sinkholes.
An easy assumption to make is that what paved the way for these shows was ABC’s “Lost,” which strode the middle ground between full-on hard sci-fi and relatable character drama almost from the very beginning. But there’s a three year gap between the “Lost” series finale and the “Under the Dome” season premiere. Is that how long it took for CBS to think it sounded like fun to play in this wheelhouse? Or is that just how long it took, for this idea to come around?
While the first two seasons of “Under the Dome” were pretty grounded, the show’s third season began with a two-parter that denied audiences the basic understanding of what is real and what isn’t. It’s occasionally a bit predictable, for anyone familiar with the “they’re still in the game!” trope, but the mind-fucking involved is pretty intriguing.
(I think new cast member Marg Helgenberger is an alien, FYI. That’s my theory. You heard it here first.)
What makes these shows so fascinating is that they’re operating, by and large, with a minimum of camp. Dean Norris, who plays Big Jim on “Under the Dome,” gives no indication that he’s taking the role any less seriously than he did his (excellent) work as Hank on “Breaking Bad.” Halle Berry, in the Season 2 premiere of “Extant,” is maybe a little looser than she was in Season 1, but she’s also playing a person who has a pretty decent reason to be in a mental institution. And
Bob Benson James Wolk, despite a few major television gigs that didn’t go beyond Season 1 (“Lone Star,” “The Crazy Ones”), might be one of the few actors on Earth not only able to sell this premise, but make it feel at least a little bit scary.
Because even the writers take these shows seriously. During a press day held by CBS a few weeks ago, executive producer Scott Rosenberg, with no trace of irony, said that their goal, as producers, was to make people terrifed of their pets. “In July, when Mom, Dad, Buddy and sis are sitting on the couch, and they just finished watching Episode 5 of ‘Zoo’ and the dog is sitting over there, Skippy the Spaniel… We really want a place where: ‘So Ma, it’s your turn to walk Skippy.’ ‘I ain’t walking Skippy, you walk Skippy.’ We want the whole world to fear their Schnauzer. Then we’ve done our job right,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the shows are camp-free: “Extant” Season 1 ended with Halle Berry’s robot son exploding himself to fight off Halle Berry’s half-alien son (who is evil). Season 2 begins with Halle Berry in a mental hospital because the events of Season 1 literally drove her crazy. Quite honestly, Halle, we’re right there with you.
But we’re there with Halle in the best possible way. Would the more outrageous twists and turns of these shows be so enjoyable if they weren’t presented in such a matter-of-fact way? Would they feel quite so delightfully bonkers if they were winking at us? Honestly, maybe not.
Maybe the most bonkers thing about all these shows, though, is this interesting undercurrent running under through all of them that suggests what I mentioned above: A fear of the future.
The most relatable aspects of “Under the Dome” focus on the question of sustainability. How long can this small town survive without basic necessities or the ability to escape? Meanwhile, “Extant” literally flashes the word “EXTINCT” on screen before the letters contract to form the show’s logo, and the plot, leading into Season 2, revolves largely around an alien invasion that could wipe out all of humanity (yep, like “The X-Files,” except that it actually seems like it’ll make sense at the end).
And the producers of “Zoo” were quite specific about that angle when speaking to press. “It’s another one of these reminders. We humans are doing a lot of questionable things and we need to think about it, and we need to keep being reminded in different ways about what we’re doing,” executive producer James Patterson said.
“We all share the planet. We’re in a symbiotic relationship,” executive producer Jeff Pinkner added.
Whether the messages being communicated by these shows is being received by audiences is hard to say, especially because as they go, the mythology seems to get more and more complicated. Here’s a piece of paper CBS provided to press to explain the events of “Under the Dome” Season 2, in preparation for Season 3:
To the layperson, I imagine that doesn’t really clear much up. But it’s neat that CBS is supporting shows like these; at least, during the summer.
The only real downside to this programming is that it lacks a strong sense of personality behind the scenes. One of the coolest things about television these days is that when you sit down to watch something, you can oftentimes get a real sense of auteurship behind the scenes. No matter what network is involved, a Matthew Weiner show is not a Marti Noxon show is not a John Ridley show. But CBS shows do tend to lack that kind of definition.
I’m prepared to forgive that, though, for how it leads to these matter-of-fact presentations of delightfully odd concepts. Because the worst sin television can commit, at this point in time, is to be boring. And seriously, bless CBS for escaping that this summer.