Stephen King’s 2009 novel “Under the Dome” is a 1000+ page behemoth about what befalls Chester’s Mill, one of King’s favored small Maine towns, when it’s suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by a giant, transparent dome. CBS’s summer series adaptation is only slated to run 13 episodes, with the possibility of further seasons, so the chances of it covering the same amount of ground are slight, but the promising first episode given to the press and premiering tonight — June 24, at 10pm — gives precedence to sketching the characters over worrying too much about the mystery beyond its initial, shocking impact.
Some of the trapped, like the seemingly criminal Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel of “Bates Motel”) and the couple (Aisha Hinds and Samantha Mathis) traveling with their teenager daughter (Mackenzie Lintz), are just passing through. Others, like newspaperwoman Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre), politician and used car dealer James “Big Jim” Rennie (Dean Norris) and teenager Joe McAlister (Colin Ford), are locals who have full histories with their neighbors. The power lines are down, as are cell phone signals — they can’t even be heard through the wall. Strangers or lifelong friends, everyone under the dome is set to get to know one another very well.
The obvious touchpoint for “Under the Dome” (besides the coincidentally similarly plotted “The Simpsons Movie”) is “Lost” (on which Brian K. Vaughan, who developed this project for TV, previously worked), which stranded a group of people on an island rather than under an invisible barricade, but it also has the feel of a “Twilight Zone” episode writ large, particularly in the setting of the small town you can’t leave. The uncanny phenomenon is a way to explore aspects of human nature — as, short of electricity and contact with the outside world, Chester’s Mill’s existing dramas are set to come to the forefront.
The mystery does arrive in impressive form, rattling the area before crashing down with a seismic boom. The episode’s director, Niels Arden Oplev (of the Danish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), stages the scene in which passer-through Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel of “Bates Motel”) witnesses the barrier come down with a gruesome lyricism — anything or anyone in its path is very unlucky, and visuals like a bloody handprint on the barrier and a truck coming into contact with it at full speed stand out in what’s otherwise fairly standard-looking TV fare. In the cast, Norris’ presence is the most welcome, his character offering a slightly more menacing variation on his cheery but deeply competent Hank from “Breaking Bad.”
Whether the TV “Under the Dome,” which originated at Showtime before ending up at CBS, will contain the same political resonances as King’s book is yet to be seen. But the series manages a small poke at the changing face of small town America in the first episode, when the woman behind the counter at the town’s diner notes that their business has been rough ever since a Denny’s opened the next town over. When the dome comes down, those Denny’s customers get separated from their families, unable to come home.