Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Under the Dome 1.02: "The Fire"

One of my all-time favorite movies is A Christmas Story, which in some ways I consider to be a near-perfect piece of filmmaking.  Practically every moment of it rings with truth of one sort or another.

Among those moments is the one in which Ralphie, having finally received his long-coveted Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, is feverishly writing down the top-priority message coming through that night's transmission.  His mind races with the possibilities of what his induction into that secret society might portend.

What it turns out to be is a crummy Ovaltine commercial: "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine!"

Ralphie stares at the page for a moment, the realization dawning in his brain.  He stares into space for a moment, his face a study in confused dismay that wants to turn into betrayed rage, but never manages it; Ralphie simply accepts the moment for what it is, and with that acceptance comes an inability to achieve genuine anger.

"Son of a bitch," Ralphie breathes, in a tone that contains equal parts heartbreak and wonderment.  Here is a child who knows he has stepped forever into a wider world, and that it is, paradoxically, smaller than he could ever have imagined.
This is a boy who has had an epiphany.

I wouldn't say that I experienced any epiphanies while watching the second episode of CBS's Under the Dome, but I would certainly say that the series offered me a couple of "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine" moments, both of which caused me to realize that all my worst fears about last week's mediocre premiere episode were well-founded.

Son of a bitch...

There has been a lot of chatter in the King community this past week about a message King posted on his website.  It was a well-written and soundly logical opinion piece stating why King thought it was perfectly okay for the series to have changed numerous elements from the book in the process of adaptation, because, as he says, the book itself is still on the shelf, having been changed not one iota.

As it happens, I agree with King on this issue.  I'd point out that King himself has been spending the last thirty years proving that he is incapable of letting go of The Shining as regards Kubrick changes to the story for the movie version.  But what of it?  It's a fair point, but here's another one: King is under no obligation to anyone in this world to be completely consistent.

Here's my thing: I don't care that changes were made to the story of The Shining for the movie, and I certainly don't care that changes have been made to the story of Under the Dome for the television series.  I never care; not with The Lord of the Rings, or Watchmen, or Casino Royale, or The Wizard of Oz, or whatever else you care not name.
I just don't care...
...the end result is good filmmaking.  The Lord of the Rings is good filmmaking.  So are those other ones I named (mostly).
Two episodes in, the same cannot be said of Under the Dome.  Or, if it can be said, it won't be said by me.
"The Fire" contains one of the most ham-fisted moments I have seen on television in years and years and years.  When the Reverend sets fire to the incriminating evidence he successfully locates in Duke's house, he may as well be twirling his mustache while doing it.  As I recall, he emits a villainous cackle.  Not a full-throated-one; just a little one.  So the scene is already bad.

What happens next is awful.  He kicks the trash can over closer to the drapes, seemingly so as to catch them on fire.  Why else would he do that?  Beats me, but there must be some other reason, because when he sees that the drapes have ignited, he freaks out,  He begins trying to beat the flames out, but, naturally, succeeds only in spreading them further.  Then, amazingly, he doesn't leave the room, or the house; this, presumably, is because he had read the screenplay and knew he was not allowed to leave.

[UPDATE, July 4:  I watched the scene a second time, and found that I'd been slightly too hard on it.  It's still a poorly-executed scene, but I got two things wrong.  For one, Lester definitely does not kick the trash can closer to the drapes.  I have no idea where I got that idea from.  For another, the reason he doesn't leave the room is because he has, stupidly, flung the fire onto the curtains on the door through which he entered the room.  I hate to be inaccurate, so I figured I'd better mention it.  That said, it's still an awful scene.]

Later, as the house burns, threatening calamity to the entire town if the fire should spread, the situation looks dire and unsalvageable.  But then Big Jim Rennie comes riding in on a bulldozer to save the day, and he tears down Duke's old house.  As this was happening, I found myself thinking, "Oh...so that's what kid of series this is going to be," and I had the strangest urge for a chocolatey milk product.

Bad moments can happen even in great films.  The premiere season of Hannibal was exceptional in every regard, but even that show had a scene in which Hannibal and another serial killer more or less broke into a kung fu fight.  It was so daffily incredible (and I mean that last word in its literal sense) that all I could do was gape at the screen in confused, semi-delighted / semi-horrified wonder.

So a couple of bad scenes will not necessarily ruin an episode for me, and they certainly won't ruin a series.  IF the rest is sufficiently good to balance the bad moments out.

That does not happen with "The Fire."  It is an episode with very few good moments.  I was left cold by the premiere episode, but even it had numerous good moments.  In the second episode, we have a lot of Angie screaming; we have bad acting from Colin Ford and the guy who plays Joe's skater friend; we have a dog who would almost certainly have been chowing down on some prime human leg; we have not one but two clumsily-staged fistfights; we have an actress who has clearly never thrown a ball in her entire life; we have a rogue cop who is already so unhinged that he appears to have stopped shaving two days previously (just so as to be properly scruffy, so the audience knows not to trust him); we have more scenes of Dean Norris doing his "I'm going to say things in a low, menacing tone so that the audience knows Big Jim is actually a villain" schtick; and we have a deejay who seems preposterously determined to play rock music in the face of a supernatural disaster.

Everyone comes to films -- be they made for theatres or for televisions screens -- with a different set of expectations as to what they want to see and experience.  I'm sure there are people who enjoyed this episode.  More power to 'em, and if you happen to be one of their number, then I regret the divide between us.  I won't apologize for it, though, and I won't mince my words much in an attempt to avoid the issue.  This, in my opinion, is bad, ineffective filmmaking; it is not palpably better than the worst episodes of Haven, and those -- which seem mostly to be in the series' past -- are pretty damn bad.

I love great television, and I am frequently reminded of just how incredibly powerful a television series can be.  The recent death of James Gandolfini, for example, caused me to remember anew just how impeccable a show The Sopranos was.  There was a show that could suggest volumes simply by having Tony blink a few times without saying anything.  Think of the episode in which Tony takes Meadow on a trip to scout out a college.  Priceless; and that's a single example.

A more recent example include an episode of Game of Thrones in which several major characters died unexpectedly (to non-readers, at least), in brutal, sudden fashion that made you realize -- even if only in some tiny way -- that that must be what it's like when you get murdered: you don't see it coming, you don't expect it, and you don't recover from it.  It is final as final can be.

Another great recent example: an episode of Mad Men in which Don is discovered cheating on his wife, not by his wife herself, but by his daughter, who has sneaked into a neighbor's apartment trying to salvage a potentially embarrassing situation involving a boy she likes.  She's trying to retrieve a letter she wrote.  She sees her father fucking a woman who is not his wife, drops the keys on the floor, is seen, and flees.  Don chases her, but cannot catch up to her; she has fled the building into the streets of New York, and is gone.  Don stands in the lobby of the apartment building; you have never seen a man whose feet have less of an idea where to take him.  Here, again, is a moment in which someone realizes the world has changed, forever.

You get moments of that nature on the best television shows, such as the ones mentioned above.  Breaking Bad is jammed full of them, and Big Jim Rennie himself, Dean Norris, is one of that show's co-stars.  The gulf in quality between his two shows is a vast one.

In some ways, it might seem unfair to compare the two.  Hell, in some ways it is unfair to compare any two shows, because really, shouldn't every show be judged in its own merits?  Yeah, maybe.  Someone else can do that, though; I expect more from my television shows, because in a culture where Mad Men and The Wire and Friday Night Lights are possible, I feel like I have that right.
And given the premise of Under the Dome, I don't know that there is any persuasive reason why the series couldn't at least be within shouting distance of those shows.

Two episodes in, it couldn't get to shouting distance of those shows if it had a speedy horse to ride toward them.

There's room for improvement; all is not yet lost.  I'll stick with the show, and I'll hope it improves.  But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I'm afraid that the show has jumped a shark in a mere two episodes: Big Jim riding that bulldozer to save the day from the events of a moronic supposed Reverend may as well have been the Fonz, grinning as he water-skied over one of Jaws' cousins.
Pass the Ovaltine, y'all.


  1. "Everyone comes to films -- be they made for theatres or for televisions screens -- with a different set of expectations as to what they want to see and experience. I'm sure there are people who enjoyed this episode. More power to 'em, and if you happen to be one of their number, then I regret the divide between us. I won't apologize for it, though, and I won't mince my words much in an attempt to avoid the issue."

    Wouldn't dream of asking you not to.

    In fact, I think stating ones personal standards of quality are a good way of determining one's artistic principles.

    I didn't mind either episode personally, though I admit to not caring what becomes of the Junior Rennie plot element.

    I was sort of drawn back to another CBS series with a similar premise. Does anyone remember Jericho?

    In essence, it's about small town in the Midwest that's sheltered from a nuclear war where the hero is the killer from the first Scream movie and there's this whole plot about stopping international conspiracy.

    I remember this speech one character gave during the first episode that struck me as somehow cornball, and it was something I kept coming up against throughout that series.

    I flashed on that at the end of this episode, though in the end I decided it manages to avoid that pitfall.

    I also like how it's now implied the government knows nothing and the real threat may be within the town itself.


    1. I remember "Jericho." I watched maybe half of the first season before I bailed out on that show, for reasons exactly like the one you mention. Another show I would put in the same category is "Falling Skies." Both had the same problem: I never believed in what was happening for even one second. And so far, to my distress, I have to put "Under the Dome" in the same category.


    2. I still watch Falling Skies. It's out there that's for sure. But I like that it's different then the other shows on TV. I am sick of the CSIs and Law and Orders.

    3. How has it been since that first season? Should I try catching up at some point?

    4. It is actually OK. I mean it's not some sort of nomination worthy show. But I have liked it. They are now moving along from city to city.. met up with some people, joined them. We've seen the aliens. All that jazz.

    5. I'll put it on my extended viewing list. (I've got a sci-fi project in the works that is so ambitious as to be downright insane; giving "Falling Skies" a second look would fit into that, I'd imagine.)

  2. Yeah, "The Fire" was pretty bad. Definitely for all the reasons you mention and for the greatest reason of all: CGI fire just looks awful. Usually - definitely does here, at any rate. I appreciate the reality of a budget and all, but outside of a few shots, it really looked bad.

    I was also amused by how damn quickly it went out once bulldozed. I guess all the shots we had before that of it spreading to the fence, etc. were doused off-camera.

    I'm with you on changes. If they're done well/ purposefully, then I'm fine with them in theory; if not, I get aggravated. I'm not sure what to make of the show yet, but the changes are leaning on the bad side for me. Chef Bushey most of all; turning him into this hip DJ dude is such a 180 from him in the book. Again, fine with 180s in theory, but... dunno. So far the changes and compartmentalizations haven't made the characters/ set-up more interesting, but less.

    I'll stick with it for a bit, but there was one zoom-in on Dean Norris last night, can't exactly recall it now, but when it happened I thought, 'I might not be sticking with this one...' It was just one of those pointless shots one always sees on uncertain shows. Not the best description, I know. I'd be disappointed if an Under the Dome show was on tv and I wasn't watching it, but unless they start making the changes work/ making a bit more compelling tv, I might stop watching.

    1. Thing about the bulldozer scene is: would that actually work? On many shows, I'd simply buy into it without questioning it, filing it under the heading of "this was written by smarter people than me, so it MUST be accurate." But in this instance, I'm not so sure it WAS written by someone smarter than me. So many moments failed utterly that it made me question things like the question of whether collapsing a burning house would put the fire out quicker.

      Not really the sort of thing you want your audience contemplating during an episode, I'd wager.

    2. Nope!

      And the more I think about it today, the worse it's getting... This show really should have charged out of the gate, Lost-style. Think of where that show was (or BSG or Breaking Bad or so many others) after the pilot and first/ second episode. Not that everything has to follow the same pattern, but I just feel like it's failing to be as great as it could/ should be.

      I do kind of like the wide shots where you see the army soundlessly going about their business while we stay inside with the Domers. That has potential to be at least a visual hallmark of the series, if they keep it up.

      I just don't see the point of the changes so far, but hopefully something'll click sooner or later.

    3. The best shows nowadays have pilots and first seasons that seem fully-formed. Those shows still evolve, but the days seem to be mostly gone when a series would stumble around for a half-season or so trying to find its legs, like some sort of awkward newborn colt.

      Which is why, I think, I'm quickly becoming intolerant of "Under the Dome." All the elements are in place, thanks to the novel; stumbling around ought to be a complete non-issue. It makes me fear that there are serious problems either in the production or in the writer's room; neither of those things would be the sign of a show that has much of a chance of improving.

      Anyways, that's just an educated guess. And I suspect that the ratings will begin nosediving after this week's episode, so it may end up not being an issue past the first 13 episodes.

    4. The fire was hilarious. We were all laughing at how fast it burned. I hope that you don't give up on the show. I like to read your posts every week and will be sad if you give up on the show. Even if it is a ship-wreck!

    5. Were those curtains made of kerosene?!?

      Zero chance of me giving up on the show. I will keep watching simply because it's King, and I'll keep reviewing it simply because I enjoy writing the reviews! I just hope it gets better; I love ripping things apart, but I'd much rather be praising the show than damning it.

  3. Funny you should mention A Christmas Story. I was just at Higbee's Department Store last weekend and will probably be there again this weekend. It is now a casino in downtown Cleveland's Public Square. I don't gamble, but I wanted to see what they'd done with the building. The last time I was in Cleveland in 2006, it was an empty, rotting shell.

    1. Well, I guess a casino is better than nothing. Marginally. (I say this as someone who has never been to a casino in his life and might well have a blast ... but who sincerely doubts it.)