In the CBS thriller Under the Dome, bad things are happening to the all-American town of Chester’s Mill. A giant invisible shield comes down from outer space, sharp enough to slice a cow in half. People under the bubble can see through it, but they can’t hear through it, and they can’t communicate with the outside world: no phones, no power, no #alieninvasion2013 hashtag. So the locals have to figure out the mystery of who is targeting their town and why. One farm boy asks, “What if the government built this thing?” “I doubt it,” a stranger replies. “Because it works.”
The great thing about Under the Dome – based on the Stephen King bestseller – is its ambition. Finally, the networks are starting to realize they have to step it up if they want to compete with the prestigious cable dramas. So it’s a pull-out-the-stops summer-TV event with 13 episodes, longer than a typical miniseries but the usual length for an HBO/AMC/FX season. The network-vs.-cable anxiety hovers all over Under the Dome, right down to its star Dean Norris, best known as Hank from Breaking Bad.
CBS, the network that served up all those Earth-in-danger fantasies on The Twilight Zone, at the very dawn of television, is now revisiting the story at what seems like the twilight of the empire. They even sneak in a Walking Dead joke. One of the locals tries to reassure a friend that the blackout might be no big deal: “Cable is out. That doesn’t mean it’s end times.” The friend yells back, “If roving packs of mutants start swarming this place, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
The town of Chester’s Mill, the heart of the story, is a surprisingly credible place, because of how fundamentally unlikable all these small-town folks are. Even the heart-of-gold policewoman explains why she got engaged to a firefighter: “Their insurance makes ours look like crap.” Instead of plucky salt-of-the-earth types, they’re complacent assholes surrounded by slightly livelier cows. A visitor reads from a gas-station brochure: “ ’Chester’s Mill is known for its rich, fertile land and warm, inviting people’? Please – these jerks don’t even have orange juice.”
All the local-color stock characters you’d expect to populate a War of the Worlds story like this one are stuck in the bubble: the cranky sheriff, the idealistic reporter, the tough-cookie waitress, the stranger in town, the teen jock – but there are plenty more. I love the indie-rock DJs who figure out how to break the radio silence. (The town’s “only 100 percent independent home of rock!”) And Norris as the town-council honcho and car salesman who may or may not be what he seems. He listens to the owner of a diner complain about how the new Denny’s is driving her out of business, and then tips her a hundred bucks. Burn on you, Walter White!
Under the Dome has both grand narrative scope and the small-bore detail that networks haven’t succeeded with since Lost ended. And while the imprimatur of executive producer Steven Spielberg might not be a guarantee (remember Terra Nova?), the production is self-consciously movielike, even opening with a shot swiped straight from Kubrick’s 2001.
After a season where the networks did what they always do – play it safe – and saw their returns go from “diminishing” to “nonexistent,” they don’t have much to lose by trying to do better. But the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.
This story is from the July 4th-July 18th issue of Rolling Stone.