Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Under the Dome 1.10: "Let the Games Begin"

One of the plotlines in tonight's episode of Under the Dome involved Linda and Julia trying to find clues about the reason for all the propane.  In an amazingly coincidental and timely bit of intuition, Linda has found the key to a safety-deposit box inside Duke's cowboy hat.  Because since he never didn't wear it, it had to be hiding something, right?

So they go to the bank.

The episode shifts focus to a different plotline for a while, but it eventually returns to the bank.  Linda has located the box that corresponds to the key.  "Here it is," she says; "Duke's safety-deposit box."

Now, I want you to imagine that you are one of the two people in that scenario.  Nah, scratch that; let's use a different scenario.  Let's say you and a friend go to the grocery store.  You've been sent to find a single item: a twelve-pack of Coca-Cola.  For whatever reason, you're having trouble locating it.  You walk up and down every aisle.  You see bread.  You see bananas.  You see cream-of-chicken soup.  You see one of those jars of salsa that has Paul Newman on it; he's wearing a sombrero and has a vaguely Hispanic mustache.  You see cat litter.  You see birthday cards.  You see sour cream, you see laundry detergent, and finally, you see soda.

So you walk up to a twelve-pack of Coke, and what do you do then?  You turn to your friend, and you say, "Here it is; a twelve-pack of Coke."

And your friend looks back at you and says, "No fucking shit?!?  What do I look like, a moron?"

If Julia had done that to Linda, I'd have been so happy I wouldn't even know what to do.  Sadly, she just continued playing the script the way it had been written, and the way it was being directed: as though the people watching the episode are dumber than all hell.

Talk Stephen King recently had a good post about how this series treats its audience like idiots.  I wish I could agree with David that America isn't that stupid.  I think America is that stupid on a good day; and on a bad one I think it wishes it was smart enough to be that stupid.  Vast swathes of this nation cannot flush a public toilet, or return a shopping cart to the designated area, or walk through the in door rather than the out door.  Huge numbers of my fellow citizens say "nukeyalar" instead of "nuclear."  This nation got very close to electing Sarah Palin to be its vice president.  This nation adores Chris Brown, who is scarcely one step above being a Neanderthal.  And don't even get me started on Duck Dynasty.  

We might fairly be said to be a nation of fools.

And evidently, CBS has decided to aim Under the Dome squarely at this nation's Lowest Common Denominator.  How else can a scene like the one mentioned above be explained?  This is a series whose network and/or producers are behaving as though its audience cannot remember from one scene to the next why Linda and Julia were in that bank.  They only went there for one reason, but by God, make sure that you remind people what that reason is!

Buckle up, y'all; I'm 'bout to start bitchin'.

Speaking of bitching, I continue to loathe Maxine.  (Get it?  I said "bitching," and then mentioned Maxine, who is a bitch.  See, the reason why that's funny is because it's like I was talking about two things at once.  It's really funny.  You just have to be able to follow me.  Laugh!)

Now, let me clarify what I mean by that.  I don't mean that I'm removing Maxine from my Christmas-card list; I don't mean that I wouldn't want to go shoe-shopping with her.  I mean that Maxine is an uninteresting character who is being played in an uninteresting fashion by the actor cast to play her.  Maxine is boring.  Maxine is somebody's idea of an upper-class female gangster; Maxine is supposed to be going against type (i.e., she looks like a fashion designer, but secretly she's a criminal mastermind!  Gasp!), but is the sort of character who has been popping up on CBS and TNT and USA and other mediocre networks for at least the past two decades.  So Maxine would only seem edgy to the sorts of people who essentially stopped living in 1992.  To CBS viewers, in other words.

Maybe I'm reading it all wrong.  And I'm aware that I've slipped into Bryant-insults-people mode, which is never a good place for me to go.  So let's ease back on the throttle just a tad.  It may be that I'm not supposed to be seeing Maxine as being edgy and powerful at all; it may be more the case that I'm supposed to think Maxine sees herself as being edgy and powerful, and this is her idea of how to walk that walk and talk that talk.

I'd like to believe that, but nothing in the series proves this to be the case.  Instead, she's operating an underground boxing ring that is -- depending on your outlook -- a bit reminiscent of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Fight Club.  ("He's the ball-cracker!  Death on foot!  You know him!  You love him!  He's...Baaaaaarbie!")  ("The first rule of Dome Club is, you do not talk about Dome Club!  The second rule of Dome Club is, you do not talk about Dome Club!")  This is the sort of lame plotline that would have seemed embarrassing on the first season of Babylon 5.  It would have been tedious on Walker, Texas Ranger.

My dad -- who is a smart guy, but not terribly discriminating in some ways -- made a disgusted sound when Barbie got sucker-punched during this scene, and then announced to the room, "You know, this is a stupid show sometimes."  My mom spoke up and agreed.  (I don't have cable, so I go over to my parents' house and watch things with them sometimes.  Just last night, we were watching an episode of Breaking Bad, and my dad announced that Walter White was a genius.  He said it admiringly, and he wasn't wrong to do it.)  They both sounded like they'd had an epiphany of some sort.

That's how bad this episode was.  We had similar moments during the second episode, "The Fire," but this episode may actually have been worse.

Other moments of dullardry:
  • Really, show?  That's how you choose to have Julia find out about Barbie having killed her husband?  And you expect me to believe that she takes the knowledge that well?  That's . . . dude, "awful" doesn't even begin to describe that.  Mike Vogel and Rachelle Lefevre are very good actors, and that was the only thing that made that scene even vaguely palatable. 

  • Are you determined to just not use Phil?  Of course, I said something similar about Dodee last week, and she was shoved into this episode for virtually no reason at all.  (Don't come at me -- bro -- with a "but them taking her to the hospital made it possible for Angie to guess about Junior!"  Angie should have been able to figure that out based on the paintings.  So the scene with Dodee was useless in every way.)
  • Still no Carolyn?!?  Has Aisha Hinds left the series and nobody wants to admit it?
  • I've never been a huge Mare Winningham fan, and I automatically hate her character almost as much as I hate Maxine.  There's no excuse for her letting Big Jim get the jump on her.  Lady: you've got a rifle on the guy, and you've demonstrated that you know how to use it.  He starts moving toward you, you put a bullet into the floor in front of his feet.  He moves any farther, you kneecap him.  Period.
  • I forgot to mention it last week, but boy, do I hate that little piece of camera footage showing Duke getting out of the car to talk to Maxine.  That is patently not Jeff Fahey, and the shot is so obviously staged so as to keep us from seeing anything but his black cowboy hat.
  • The scene in which Maxine Sr. -- or whatever her name is (Claire, I think...?) -- falls off the boat is ham-handed as hell.  I assumed initially that she jumped off, so as to either try to escape or simply to screw with Big Jim.  But no, she fell off.  If you were a prisoner with your hands tied together on a moving powerboat, would you stand up and then walk near the edge of the boat?  No, you wouldn't.  Unless you were a moron in a moronic screenplay, and the Powers That Be had determined that you had to fall overboard, but couldn't think of a better way to pull it off.  Awful.

I still enjoyed most of the business with the minidome.  I like the energy Alexander Koch brings to that quartet.  And Colin Ford actually showed some signs of life this week.

Thing is, I'm steadily losing faith in the show's writers and producers.  I can put up with a certain amount of awkwardness in a series, and I can even put with a certain amount of outright stupidity.  Even the best shows are occasionally going to drop the ball.  That's just the nature of the medium, and if you can't deal with it, you've got no business watching episodic television.  But there's a big difference between coping with the realities inherent to a medium and permitting a series to be as consistently awkward and/or ineffective as Under the Dome is turning out to be.

It disappoints me to find myself coming back full-circle to the type of complaints I was making about the show's first couple of episodes, but it's beginning to appear that the upswing in quality the show experienced shortly thereafter was either an illusion or an aberration, because "Let the Games Begin" was not the product of a series that has found its footing.  It is the product of people who either don't know what they're doing, or have their sights remarkably low.

I expect that from CBS.  It shocks me that Brian K. Vaughan's name is on this, however.  I'm not an expert on his work, but what I've read -- thirteen issues of Saga and three of The Private Eye -- indicates that he not is not merely a talent, but a major one.  I simply cannot connect that Vaughan with this Vaughan.  And yet, I know they are one and the same.  It boggles my mind, and makes me wonder if I'm just crazy.

But I suspect I'm not.  Nope, I just have standards.  And it frustrates me now, whereas it has not frustrated me for weeks, that people are associating this crap with Stephen King.  King is not above making the occasional gaffe in his own work (Under the Dome included), but if I step back and examine the entirety of his canon, I see a writer of almost limitless talent.  He has skill that not more than a tiny handful of other people during his lifetime will have possessed.  Not everyone will agree with me on that point; King himself, an affable and self-effacing fellow, wouldn't agree with it.  He doesn't have to; people like me will do it for him.  He is literally a genius, and therefore he gets the right to deny it.

It's disheartening to see the television series adaptation of one of his novels be this inferior to the novel itself.  I've heard the arguments: the adaptation need not follow the novel.  Hell, I've made that argument; and I stand by it.

But the adaptation does need to be at least roughly equivalent in quality.  I think that is a minimum expectation.  And while I've got problems with the novel, it is not merely better than the adaptation, it is enough better that I honestly feel there is no debate to be had on the subject.  You're free to disagree, of course, and if you've got an argument to make, hit up the comments and make it.

But you better come strong, and you better come hard, because this is Thunderdome, baby, and I'm direct from outta the wastelands.  I'm bad, I'm beautiful, I'm crazy, and to take me down, you're gonna need more than what you've probably got.

Because the television version of Under the Dome is lousy, and it seems to be getting lousier by the week, and I really don't see that it has much chance of improving this season.

What a shame.


  1. crushingly disappointed in this series

    1. I see no reason for you not to be. I'd more or less been with it up until now, but this episode has caused me to turn on it pretty viciously.

  2. Well, actually I guess the whole matter is one of, not so much quality, which all agree exists, yet more on how personal experience shapes expectation of quality.

    Believe it or not, last night's episode left me cautiously optimistic.

    Part of it stems from a different take on the novel, yet notice the strange thing. The strongest held convictions are often the hardest to clarify.

    Whether this is from heightened emotion or lack of proper understanding of the subject is something I'm not that sure about, although the answer is probably a little of both.

    For instance, if I just go and say there is little of quality or structure in UTD the novel, I'll have to do more than leave it at that even if all I hope is to suggest a new possible angle of looking at it.

    However if I were to point to any one element, such as the underdevelopment of the character of of Junior Rennie in the novel or the caricature that is Big Jim, that harly scratches the surface.

    What's needed here, it seems to me, is at least a full setting out of personal artistic standard on the table if that even helps.

    Two items I came across recently might or might not add anything, however one is a fascinating book on story structure in fiction called "Thinking in Circles" by Mary Douglas.

    The other is I've been able to locate the source of King's quote from Frank Norris, the one that goes "I told the Truth" (i.e. the one inside the lie presumably, yet I always felt that statement extended to encompass the intrinsic Truth of fictional events that go to make up the narrative, does this bit fit in well with all the others, in other words).

    It's in a book of essays by Norris called "The Responsibilities of the Novelist.

    I'm still in the first few pages, however what I've read has been a blast!

    An internet archive link for it is here:


    Not bad for a guy in the early Nineteen hundreds.

    This isn't much of an argument, but who cares, that Norris book is interesting!


    1. "Believe it or not, last night's episode left me cautiously optimistic."

      I believe it. I just can't fathom why that would be the case. Care to cite any specifics from the episode?

    2. In the case of this episode, after the lackluster plot of last week's show, this one featured what (for me) is a return to the element the best episodes seemed good at, normal and not so normal people either verging into the realm of the psycho, or else into that grey area where they could eventually become one.

      If had to give some literary examples as precedent, then I'd have to go with maybe Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now) William Golding and maybe Flannery O'Connor.

      Either way, for me it was nice seeing characters going back to doing what makes the show go for me, letting their own demons do the talking.

      As for Maxine, while it's probably too early to decide on this character, and I'm still not sure about the sports betting arena thing (am I wrong or was I supposed to understand that when she came to town before the Dome she brought along her entire criminal posse with her? It's pretty clear a lot of the people in that warehouse weren't from town but were "From Away", like maybe Flagg's Vegas!).

      Still, what sort of help let it slide for me is when Dale points out the obvious short comings of her plan to turn the town in her own private Vegas is basically that supplies will run low and all people will be reduced to in time is crops. What makes it bearable is her response that if push comes to shove she'll burn the town to the ground.

      What makes that work for me is the implication that, deep down she just doesn't care what happens to her, and that she knows none of this can possibly last for her, so it's not a matter of if but when. In other words, she's basically planned to burn the town down all along. I expect we can expect to see the season finale to turn around this (all that propane's got to be put to some use sometime).

      Also, finally, as the episode started, it just occurred to me that her character was kind of implied from the very beginning when Dale buried the body and made that phone call.

      As for Julia and Dale later on, well, bear in mind the other point of the whole episode is town secrets, which means secret people hide from others, and themselves. In other words, this wouldn't be a King adaptation without at least some element of uncovering the black heart of small town America.

      The final element that worked, Junior joined the Dome club. I can only wonder how that's going to pan out.

      Also, the Dome itself. All I'll say is, World Builder, possibly.


    3. You make some good points here, especially in regards to the moment when Dale turned the tables on Maxine a bit. (I do like that Maxine calls him Dale; she's at least got that going for her.) That scene was good. For me, though, it doesn't redeem the rest of that plotline.

      You make another good point in mentioning that Maxine's presence is implied by Barbie making the phone call after killing Peter. And there's no reason why Maxine can't turn into something interesting going forward. Let's hope it happens with the very next episode!

      And, of course, it's always worth mentioning that just because I don't like something doesn't mean others won't. The ratings for last night's episode actually went up a bit from last week's, so clearly, America is sticking with it.

  3. Love the Thunderdome riffs. Master Blaster!

    I could not believe it when Dome Fight Club was revealed. As it dawned on me this was going to be a plot for the episode and was being sold to me as Maxine's doing, I had to restrain myself from turning it off. It felt almost last-straw-ish to me. I've known from almost the start that they weren't really aiming at me as an audience member, but I have trouble thinking anyone's going to buy this was a reasonable development, particularly for the reasons giving.

    (Though, having just done "The Man Trap," I was amused by the salt!)

    The mystery of the Rapture (particularly, as you say, how we were walked through led-by-hand and reiterated to like morons) the dynamics of the teens (Can't. Stand. Angie.) and the relationship between Julia and Barbie: none of these things are being attended to with any kind of sense. Which might be fine - and even fun - if we weren't just seeing various cliches strewn together week after week. Like you say, this does not feel like a show that's found its footing. It feels like a show-sized-object that is the excuse for a lot of trite marketing research. In other words, I'd be totally fine if this was Dawson's Creek with some inexplicable dome metaphor, but the show either needs to choose that lane or stop mixing in Dawson's Creek sensibilities.

    In this respect, the series is lucky it has Dean Norris, as although he's just being bounced around by ridiculous plot machinations, at least he's always interesting to watch. I thought of this last night during the ridiculous stand-off; as contrived as it all was, I was enjoying the tension on his face. He's a class act. I just wish he was getting better material.

    1. Norris is definitely one of the show's saving graces. He is bringing consistency, and consistency is something the series seems to be badly in need of.

      The thing with Junior standing in line, clutching his salt, and then being all like, "What? Lemme in!" makes me laugh. Maybe that's the deal with the series; Maxine is a salt vampire, and the dome is trying to protect her. Sure, why not?

  4. "You know, this is a stupid show sometimes."

    That is classic, I woulda loved to've been there for that :) It was right around that point in the show that I asked myself "why the hell am I still watching this?"

    And I have my answer...so I can keep reading your very entertaining (and pretty much spot-on for me) reviews!

    1. Wow! Thanks! That's about as high a compliment as I can imagine receiving.

      I hear ya. I will watch every episode for as long as the series airs, because I'm into it for the "it's Stephen King" angle (even when it basically really ISN'T Stephen King), but if this was just a show I'd decided to watch because I thought it looked cool, I'd be out by now, too. It's shaping up as a major disappointment.

  5. Where was Maxine the previous 8 episodes ?.. makes me fear the writers are making it up as they go, like they did with Lost

    1. The idea, I guess, was that she was there all along, but that she is too canny to have revealed herself to Big Jim prior to having all her chess pieces in place.

      In theory, I can sort of buy that. In execution, it has been piss-poor. It's like a lot of the rest of the series: good concept, crippled by weak writing, poor casting, and mediocre acting.

      I've got no problem with the making-it-up-as-they-go-along thing, because that's how King himself writes. So there, it would at least have some symmetry. And when done well, that method can work for television; example, "Breaking Bad." But yes, "Lost" is a great example of the method crashing and burning. "The X-Files" is another.

  6. Sigh... I am finally watching this episode right now. What is going on with the whole FIGHT CLUB nonsense. I try to picture a town in my head stuck under the dome, I mean would a fight club start so soon? I just... I don't love where the show is going.

    1. It's a bad episode. This week's was even worse, sadly. Or at least, that was my take on it.

      That said, some things happen that make me think the series could still be heading in a positive direction overall. I don't feel great about the odds, though.