Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Under the Dome 1.13: "Curtains"

"Curtains" was the first-season finale of Under the Dome (he said, stating the obvious, but doing so anyways due to not quite being sure how to begin the review), and for the most part, I thought it was a solid hour of television.  There were the standard gaps in logic, but they were counterbalanced capably by big story advancements and by crisp pacing.

And then, it all fell apart at the end.

Look...I get the desire to do a big cliffhanger for the season finale.  The goal, I suppose, would be to go out on a note that will leave people talking for the next seven months or so, and have them champing at the bit for the second season to begin.  But there's a right way to do that, and there's a wrong way, and I'm afraid that what we got in this episode was the wrong way.

In order to contextualize what I mean, let's consider a season finales that got it right: the season-finale cliffhanger gold standard, "The Best of Both World" (Star Trek: The Next Generation season 3).  Captain Picard has been assimilated by the Borg, and Riker, having no other choice, orders the Enterprise to fire its new weapon at the Borg vessel.  The episode had, with ruthless efficiency, established a new dynamic that viewers at the time could -- take it from someone who was there -- easily assume would be the new dynamic in the next season if Picard was killed.  This episode made it seem actually possible.

Whereas I can envision no scenario in which Barbie actually gets killed.  Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but I do not expect to be.  And even if I am eventually proven wrong, that won't make this a more satisfying cliffhanger, because currently, there is no tension.  If there is no tension, a cliffhanger doesn't work.  Period.

A devil's advocate somewhere is currently insisting that it's the "how" that might end up being important: i.e., what I should be interested in is not whether Barbie lives or dies, but how he ends up being rescued.  Well, fair enough.  If this was the sort of series where the how of things was frequently done well, maybe I'd buy that pitch.  It isn't, so I don't.  But I can cite for you an example of a series that does do the how of things -- as well as the why of things -- well: yes, Breaking Bad, which ended its third season by having Jesse pull the trigger of a gun he was holding up in front of the face of Gale Boetticher, a cook whose very existence made Walt and Jesse expendable.  The episode hedged its bets a bit by not actually showing Gale get shot, but anyone watching the series by that point had to know that Walt and Jesse could continue to live only by means of Gale's death.  The focus of the resolution would undoubtedly be the fallout; what effect would this have on Jesse?  How would Gus -- Gale's employer -- react?

Sure enough, that proved to be the case.

I can formulate no scenario in which the "how" of Barbie's eventual escape/release will be anything except deus ex machina.  (Series producer Brian K. Vaughan wrote a comic-book series called Ex Machina, so maybe this should be no surprise.)  Who can save Barbie?  Julia?  She's nowhere near.  Angie, Joe, and Norrie?  No way.  Junior?  He could...but that would go so far against the grain of the Junior/Jim scenes in "Curtains" that it would be complete bullshit.  Phil?  Unlikely, as Phil still thinks Barbie killed Dodee.  Carolyn?  Yeah, right; fat chance.

There are, as I see it, two options.  One: Big Jim lets him go.  That would be dumb.  Two: the Dome does something to cause Barbie's escape or release.

A third option might involve Annie Wilkes showing up and yelling "He DIDN'T get OUT of the COCKaDOOdie CAAR!" at everyone.

Some of my problem here has to do with the editing, which was great throughout most of the episode, but felt off in some sort of way during the final shot.  We see the black of the dome begin go away, but instead of turning clear again it turns some sort of milky color.  But just as we begin to be able to focus on what that is and what it might mean, cut to commercial.  Except, because of the way CBS structures its shows, I was unsure as to whether this was the end of the episode, or if there was more after the break.

Whatever.  It just didn't work.  It fell flat, and it wounded an episode that up until that point had done a lot to restore my interest -- if not my faith -- in a series that had what I can only characterize as a weak freshman season.

Now, all that said, there were things I liked about the episode, and some of it did indeed help to restore my interest to at least a minimal level.  I'll talk about some of that below in the form of bullet-points, but first, this:

I've been toying with whether or not I want to put together a season-overview wrapup post, and I think I have decided that doing so would be a good idea.  However, I think I want to wait a while to do it.  And honestly, the best idea seems to me to do so in the form of a review of the Blu-ray set when it comes out this fall.  Yes, I'm going to buy it.  Dude: I own The Mangler Reborn, such is my Stephen King mania.  So yes, of course I'll be buying this series on Blu-ray.  The fact that I didn't like it very much doesn't do anything to change that, sadly.

So look for that sometime down the road.

And now, some parting thoughts about "Curtains":
  • I liked this episode, but it had the requisite number of moments in which the writers assume that everyone watching is a Tom Cullen-level feebleminded moron.  Tonight, when the butterfly hatched and began flying around desperately inside the minidome, the dome began turning black every place the butterfly touched.  This was a cool, creepy effect, and it was promptly ruined by Joe -- that fucking idiot, Joe -- who said, "When the butterfly hits the dome, it leaves some kind of spot!"  Thanks, Joe!  What other things would you like to tell me about that are happening right in front of my face?  That I'm typing these words via my laptop?  Despite what this show's writers seem to think, I am not an idiot.  And when I say "idiot," I mean it literally; I believe the writers of this show believe its audience to be composed of people who do not possess even the rudimentary skills needed for getting through daily life.
  • The CGI shot of the blackened dome sitting on the landscape, with the bombed-out area on one side and a fertile-looking green area on the other side, was pretty great.  Sadly, I have no means by which to screencap it for you.
  • Boy, have I grown to hate Linda.  She is dumber than toenail fuzz.  (Maybe Joe was talking to her...)  A few episodes ago, she was prepared to arrest Big Jim for his role in the propane shenanigans.  Now, seemingly, she takes every syllable he utters at face value.  She has no interest in talking to anyone about anything.  If I were generous-minded, I might be willing to posit the idea that the seeming permanence of the dome was causing her to go a little crazy and behave in increasingly uncharacteristic fashion.  But again, that's the sort of thing they do on good television shows, which Under the Dome -- for my money -- is decidedly not.
  • Does it strain credulity a bit that Big Jim would have failed to post a guard on Barbie's jail cell?  Yes.  Yes it does.  However, the episode needs somebody to be able to say that he has escaped, so the writers have a guard and Phil come strolling in just in time to have Barbie beat them up.  Weak.
  • God, how I hate the way this show treats the townspeople.  They are a ... hell, they may as well be the Borg from that Star Trek episode I referenced earlier.  They all seem to always be thinking the same things, with no individuation of any sort.  The dome has been in place for nearly two weeks, and now they all begin to get the feeling that it might be time to go into a religious panic.  I'm sorry, but the type of people who are apt to begin talking about Revelation would have begun to do so the moment the dome descended.  It is ludicrous to trot that out now, and the producers did it only because they needed to wait until the end of the season so as to delay having Big Jim turn that corner.
  • So Julia turns out to be the monarch, eh?  Well, I never really cared who the monarch was going to turn out to be, so I'm okay with that.
  • Dean Norris was great, as usual.  I thought he was especially good in the scenes dealing with him finding out about the whole "pink stars are falling in lines" thing.  And the fact that we now now for sure that his former wife was somehow involved with this whole thing is, for me, a satisfying plot development.
  • I liked the Samantha Mathis scene a lot.  We now know there is some sort of intelligence directing the dome, and we found out a bit about its purpose: "it was sent to protect you," says the doppelganger of Norrie's dead mother.  From what?  "You'll find out," the dop says.  That's a frustrating cop-out cheat, but it's the kind I can live with, because I can assume that she/it would theoretically have a legitimate reason for not divulging that info at that time.
  • No spoilers for the book in the comments, please.
  • "You must earn the light," the dop tells Julia, convincing her to protect the egg.  I am proud of myself for thinking that tossing the fucker in the lake might be a good idea.
  • "You and I are in this together," Big Jim tells Junior; "we were chosen."  I guess I can buy the two of them definitively ending up on the same side.  That was a good scene, well acted by both Norris and Alexander Koch.  
  • Well, we saw the pink stars.  But unless I misunderstand some things on a fundamental level, they weren't falling so much as rising.  Call me crazy.

That's about all I've got to say, I guess.  A decent finale to a season that was, as far as I'm concerned, a massive disappointment.  But will I watch the second season next summer?  Yeah, sure; of course I will.  I'm a King completist, remember?  So I kinda have to watch.

As I've been writing this review, I've tried to figure out whether I would watch if that King-completist thing was a nonissue.  The doppelganger of Norrie's mother interested me; Big Jim's verification of his wife's (unwitting?) involvement did, too.  But the things that frustrate me frustrate me regardless of any King-connected concerns, and the truth is that without that obsessiveness on my part, it is a near-certainty that I would have stopped watching after the second episode (if not the first).  The bottom line is that this series simply does not meet the standards of what I expect from a television show in 2013. 
I heard an argument once that went, "if you could always eat steak, why would you ever eat a hamburger?"  And the answer is simple: because sometimes a hamburger is what I want.

Consequently, I occasionally find myself wanting a burger.  And I don't always need it to be a restaurant-quality burger; sometimes, Burger King will suit me just fine.  But if the cashier talks to me rudely, and if the burger is poorly cooked, and if it has onions on it when I've asked that there be no onions, then we've got a problem.

Under the Dome aspired to be fast-food in its first season, but it treated me as if I am stupid, and it gave me a substandard product.  But the Coca-Cola and the fries were fairly good; so maybe a return visit is called for, just to see if maybe they were having a bad day or something today.

Because I do like my burgers.  Let's hope the burgers that Under the Dome is selling are of a higher quality in the second season.


  1. I thought the same thing re: pink stars rising vs. falling.

    I kind of hated everything, ha, but what else is new. I couldn't believe they trotted out the exact same thing as Lost with the dead mom giving a string-you-along clue that may or may not (and we have every indication it will not, ever) yield anything else but another string-me-along cryptic assertion. Then again, I totally can.

    Like you say with whether or not Junior will turn on Jim and save Barbie and how doing so would undercut (yet again) the previous scenes between them, now the dome-senders have to justify this cryptic message/ weird "earn it/ protect the egg, which, was completely protected and this butterfly business is odd, too, but throw it in the lake, where we could have put it in the first place, to cancel out a special effect that was in place conveniently for the duration of this one season finale" business.

    And I seriously doubt they will.

    Nice looking effect, though. One thing: imagine (and it annoys me that this will not be the case) if the dome-senders are connected to the Tet Corporation. They need to protect Chester's Mill from the Crimson King. The blackout effect was the world going Todash as their reality was shifted to another level of the tower (as represented by the refertilized green outside the Dome) and the dome actually WAS sent to protect them.

    That would be cool.

    I have plenty more to say about this season, but I'll probably do a season overview myself one of these days and will save the nitty-gritty bitching and fury for that one, ha.

    As for me, last night was it for me. More power to them/ anyone and all, but enough's enough.

    Good idea re: Annie Wilkes, by the way! Again, I wish that would happen and am now annoyed it never will.

    1. I like that Tet Corporation idea. And since King is apparently writing an episode next season, I wouldn't be too hasty to rule out the possibility of there being some sort of a Dark Tower tie-in.

      We shall see. Or I shall see; sounds like you are electing to pull the ripcord. Can't say I blame you, to be honest.

  2. My own response was surprisingly muted when the credits rolled. Perhaps part of the reason was because, again, things were going so damn quiet that the ending brought me up short (although I think the main reason was I had just come from finding out some other, unrelated news, more on that later, maybe).

    Basically, I was distracted at the beginning and so I can't say I got whatever full effect their was to be had in the show. I do remember my thoughts at the ending were more or less as follows:

    Uhh, you're not really going to...Oh. That's it?!....Ummm, ohhh-kay then, see you...uh next summer I guess. Have Joe Hill come on board to write an episode, or better yet, make him the show's head writer.

    See if you can't make Hill and King collaborate on the finale...JUST DON'T HAVE THEM RETREAD THE NOVEL ENDING!

    So yeah, my response was someone muted, in part maybe because it looked like the big build up was still going on.

    Still, I'm interested in seeing what happens next, so here's hoping the second season is an improvement.


    1. Agreed. There's still enough here that works to keep me interested. I don't think the actual quality of the show is very high, but it did manage to entertain me more often than not. I just wish it had done a bit more than that.

      I'm also with you on the subject of the unsatisfying nature of the ending. For me, it wasn't the actual events so much as the execution of them. The episode seemed to simply cut off, rather than actually end. It didn't work for me at all.

  3. I watched the entirety of the first season with my parents, and they were out of town when the finale aired. So a couple of nights ago, I went over to their house and watched it a second time, this time with them.

    Boy, is that a terrible hour of television. Even the stuff that worked for me the first time around fell flat on a repeat viewing. And the cliffhanger is just abysmal. Even my mother, who typically has nary an unkind word to say about anything, offered up some criticism: "they could have come up with something better than that," she said.

    She wasn't wrong.

    Once the big Blu-ray box-set comes out later this year -- yes, I am going to buy it (my collection demands it!) -- I'm probably going to do a season-one rewatch. I suspect that when that happens, the gloves are going to come off.

  4. My wife loved how you called it Under the Dumb.
    This show is terrible in general but it was a fun drinking game while it lasted.
    The whole concept of a season long series was awesome too bad they got greedy.

    I'm starting to think there is 2 Brian K Vaughns there's the genius that wrote Y and Saga and some other dude that writes this show.

    1. Right?!? I'm no expert on Vaughan -- I read his two current comics, "Saga" and "The Private Eye," but have yet to read any of his older stuff -- but if I'd read nothing at all by him and you told me I had the opportunity to buy a comic written by the producer of "Under the Dome," I'd impolitely decline that offer. And yet, what I've read by him is genius! It makes no sense.

      I have no objection to the idea of an adaptation lasting more than one season. PROVIDED IT'S GOOD...which this is demonstrably not. All the changes were ostensibly made so as to enable it to be a multi-season series, but they really needn't have gone as severe with the changes as they went. Especially considering how poor the outcome has been.

      "Under the Dumb" made me smile, too. Scanning the internet shows that many, many other people had the same pun-tastic idea, some of them way before I did. Great minds think alike, I guess. Not sure what our excuse is...

    2. I wonder if they kept the Meth maker out of it bc Jim Remmey was on Breaking Bad. I kept waiting for that guy to show but alas...

      I think the Shumway actress is one of the worst actresses of all time. Makes us laugh he whole time. By the way "The I love you" scene was so over the top dumb that it would definitely crack the top of the list for that show. But I enjoy it as it's own thing. It was the first thing I've watch on CBS since Becker.

      One other interesting thing of note is that Mare Winningham, my favorite King narrator was in the show but the narrator of the book was the worst one of all time. I wish it was reversed.

      Y is a great series, I'm always disappointed by endings and that has what I think to be one of the best ending to anything ever.


    3. I suspect that the reason Andy got left out is because the producers didn't want to replicate the Bush/Cheney satire of the novel. That's understandable, and I think it works on paper. They failed to do anything interesting with it in the execution, but the idea itself is solid.

      I've got no objection to Rachelle Lefevre. I don't think she's a bad actor at all. But nobody could make the things written for her character interesting. Julia is one of THE most poorly-written characters on the series, which is saying something.

      It still annoys me that the producers used Mare Winningham as poorly as they did. I forgot that she'd narrated a King audiobook; I have yet to listen to "Lisey's Story" (which is one of my absolute least-favorite King novels), but I have no doubt that she did a fine job with it. I also have not listened to Raul Esparza's "Under the Dome" audiobook, but I've heard negative opinions of it from several other people, too. I enjoy audiobooks in theory, but the past few I listened to were so bad that it put me off. A poor narrator can, and does, make the novel seem less good; I'm not into that.

  5. If your main complaint with Lisey's story is the made up language and you consider re-reading it I suggest going with the audio book, it might change your mind.
    It's in the top 5 of SK books for me.

    1. That's an interesting idea. I might do that very thing. Thanks for the suggestion!