Friday, September 11, 2015

We Are No Longer Under the Dome

At least one commenter has expressed disappointment that I was not reviewing each episode of Under the Dome during its third season.  I'm disappointed, too; but the move to Thursdays made it nearly impossible for me to do so in a timely fashion (unless I'm on vacation, I work every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night), so I decided to just opt out.
  
I have been watching, though, and I thought it would be worth logging on tonight and dashing off a few brief words about the season in whole now that it has finished.
  
Spoilers ahead, so beware.
  
  
  
  

First things first: if you were not already aware, the show has been canceled.  The ratings had dropped heavily since the show debuted, and I guess CBS must finally have decided the bleedoff was not stanchable.
  
The producers must have sensed it coming, so they decided to structure the season in such a way that it could serve as a series finale AND as a directional indicator for a potential fourth season.
  
When the series debuted, there was much handwringing on the part of the writers and producers designed to let audiences know that the source of the dome would be different than it had been in King's novel.  There, the dome was revealed to be essentially a science experiment enacted by incredibly powerful alien children; these aliens were so far advanced compared to humanity that it seems possible that they did not even know they were being cruel.  The comparison King put in the mouths of his characters (if I remember this correctly -- and if I don't, please correct me) was that to them, the people under the dome were nothing more than ants under a magnifying glass.
  
For whatever reason, readers by the scores could not get on board with this.  I was not among their number; I thought the revelation was appropriate, unsettling, and highly memorable.  But I'm in what seems to be a silent minority, because for the most part the Internet lost its flippin' mind over how much it hated that aspect of the novel.  So, in understandable fashion, the people making the television adaptation were quick to say, "Oh, but we're not doing THAT bullshit!"
  
In the end, the show went to even stranger places; and in so doing, it abandoned and/or lost the pure simplicity of King's concept.  King dealt out a bit of Lovecraftian existential horror; the producers of the show ripped off The MatrixThe Tommyknockers, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others) and did that with no conviction.
  
For those of you who did not watch, a brief summary of what happened during the third season is this: inside the caves underneath the town, the survivors (excepting Big Jim and Julia) become cocooned inside alien -- as in extraterrestrial -- pods.  While there, their consciousness experiences a year's worth of life in an alternate/false reality in which the dome came down.  So, for example, Barbie goes back into military service and gets a new girlfriend, whom he then gets pregnant.  Except not really, because none of it is real.  They get out of the cocoons because Big Jim destroys the egg.  Everyone is bummed to find they are still under the dome, but Marg Helgenberger is there and she is apparently possessed by an alien consciousness.  She infects most of the rest of the town with other aliens, and together they are called The Kinship.  Big Jim and Julia lead a resistance against The Kinship, and then later Barbie gets his fake girlfriend real pregnant while he's possessed, and she carries the baby to term in literally three days because she is stealing power from young women who sacrifice themselves to the cause.  The baby is born, Marg Helgenberger kills the baby's mother, and the baby grows up in about a day after being placed in a cocoon and sapping energy from the dome.  The baby is played by the same actress who played her mother, but with a wig; I mean, look, she was under contract.
  
Meanwhile, the energy company headed by Barbie's father has invaded the dome so as to prevent the aliens from getting loose and infecting the whole world.  The aliens get Joe to use a giant amethyst and a radio transmitter, which is used to amplify a whistle; this destroys the dome.  Barbie kills his daughter, except not really; she escapes, and is last seen finding -- but, for some reason, not actually picking up -- another egg.  She has plans to construct a new dome, which is intended to protect The Kinship from another alien species with which they are at war.  A year has passed, and Big Jim is now a Congressman.  The fourth season seemingly would have involved his efforts to -- along with the various other survivors of Chester's Mill who were still on CBS's payroll -- prevent The Kinship from bringing up another dome.
  
Look...
  
Here's my thing: done correctly, that's not a bad idea.  It breaks down like this: the dome was an alien device designed to protect the aliens -- who had taken human form -- from a second race which was hunting them to extinction.  Or something like that.  I could get on-board with that concept.
  
However, you will have to explain to me why that is a good and acceptable concept whereas the alien-children one was not.  Good luck; I'm not going to make it easy on you.
  
In the end, I believe the tv version of Under the Dome ranks as the single worst adaptation of a King novel to ever be produced.  The book was (and is) full of biting and intense satire; not all of it works, but it has real edge to it.  It is a nightmarish scenario, and the conflict that emerges between people inside it feels very possible to me (certainly in the divided America of 2015).  The concept called for a hard-R approach full of violence, and for a no-holds-barred approach.  I get that there was a need to expand the concept so as to permit for a multi-season run if the demand was there; but in the process of doing so, the producers failed the source material utterly.  By the end of the third season, virtually nothing of the book remained (despite occasional grace notes, such as the finale's use of a baseball in a manner similar to a scene in the novel).
  
The characters in their television guises were laughable, and none more so than Big Jim Rennie.  I'm not a fan of the character in the book; he's one of King's alpha-ignoramus baddies, with catchphrases and tics and cartoonish tendencies.  In some ways, I prefer the version played by Dean Norris.  This is due purely to Dean Norris being an actor I enjoy; at some point between the second and third seasons, he obviously decided to play the role as though it were a parody, and it kind of worked.  Why not?  After all, that's the only way he was going to get any consistency: by creating it himself.  As the show progressed after its first-season debut, Big Jim would veer between being sympathetic and evil on what seemed sometimes -- and in fact may at times have been -- a weekly basis.
  
There is plenty more to be said, and eventually I'll get around to saying it by reviewing each episode of this final season; I do hate to leave a series unfinished.
  
For now, though, I've said what I felt like saying.  It was a very poor series, albeit one that had a mostly good cast and occasional moments that hinted at what a better version of the same material might have been like.  In the end, I think it goes down as a colossal failure on CBS's part, and on the parts of the various producers, including Neal Baer, Brian K. Vaughan, Steven Spielberg, and -- yes -- King himself.  
  
Vaughan (who left after the first season) was interviewed at some point early on and specified that he had an ending in mind, and that King had expressed to him how much he loved it.  I'd love to know if the series as it exists ever tackled any of that material.  Whether it did or didn't, I wish Uncle Steve had been more protective of his novel.  I suspect that public reception caused him to lose confidence in it after the fact, and if so, that's a real shame: except perhaps for the number of times he had Junior mockingly say "Baaaaarbie," he had nothing to apologize for with that book, as far as I'm concerned.  But evidence indicates that perhaps the dullards who disliked the novel's resolution swayed him, and caused him to allow the producers to make a mess of a novel that worked.
  
In my opinion, it's a real shame, and a stinging case of what-might-have-been.
  
By the way, on the same day the series finale aired, this happened:
  
  
  
  
That's King in the process of receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.  It's a heck of an honor.  
  
The television version of Under the Dome did nothing to add to King's legacy, but it probably didn't do much to harm it, either; except in the sense that in some better world, on some better level of the Tower, King is receiving plaudits of the sort one receives when one's work is turned into a great series on television.
  
It could have happened.

16 comments:

  1. Yes, it could have. I quit watching half way through the second season because it was getting so ridiculous. It doesn't sound like it got any better. I was on board with some departures from the novel but at some point the the poor execution just got in the way for me.

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    1. We're on the same page with that. The show was just so . . . cheesy, for lack of a better word. It's 2015; television doesn't have to be that anymore (and probably hasn't had to since the early nineties).

      I've got no problem with changes as long as they honor the intent of the source material. These changes, to some degree, did just that; but you could never believe in anything that was going on for even a second. Nobody took anything seriously, except (occasionally) for the actors. They had their moments, and if not for their efforts the series would have been a complete waste.

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  2. I'd like to know what Brian Vaughan's original-ending idea was, as well.

    I agree 100% with your assessment of the book, certain puzzling aspects of its reception, and King's perhaps being swayed by them. He's so blase about adaptations, which in most respects is a quality I like. But here, like you, I'd much rather have seen a more literal adaptation of a very damn good book. Not this... whatever you want to call it.

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    1. It still flummoxes me that Vaughan was involved in this trainwreck. It may be that, like King, he's simply better at his day job.

      In general, I find King's stance toward adaptations to be admirable. On the other hand, it has led to some really poor work, often with him involved as a producer; these days, if his name is on it, I'm apprehensive. Ought it not to be the other way around?

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  3. I don't know if anybody else noticed, but King's name was not listed on the credits as an executive producer this season. I wonder what the story behind that is? Hopefully if there was some sort of falling out it doesn't hurt the chances of Spielberg producing another King project somewhere down the road, though I highly doubt Spielberg really cared about this show at all. "Stephen King? Serialized show? Let me get my checkbook." Still, it's smart to stay on his good side. You never know when he'll produce or direct a true classic.

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    1. Very interesting. Typically a person's name doesn't disappear off the credits unless there is a reason for it; so I'm with you, I'd love to know what the story is there.

      I also agree that it seems likely Spielberg had practically no involvement in the series. From what I've seen of his tv work lately (this and a handful of "Falling Skies" episodes), he needs to be a lot more careful what he allows his name to be slapped onto. There is certainly nothing here to indicate Spielbergian quality.

      Speaking of which, only a bout a month until "Bridge of Spies" hits! The 'berg was quoted not long ago as saying that he planned to be very active as a director over the course of the next few years, and that plan gets a gigantic thumbs-up from The Truth Inside The Lie. Who knows, maybe he'll even take another look at "The Talisman"!

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  4. There's a very good reason for the lateness of my two cents. I've been trying to avoid that whole series. I finally watched the pre-recorded final episode. My thoughts?

    The final show more or less validated my thinking. I knew going in that (a) this would be what might be called a non-ending ending, meaning it would close things up, but in a very crummy way. And (b), I knew that it would be a very lackluster closure. There is not a single scrap of interesting character development, or rounding off of various conflicts (which to be fair, only exist to be introduced and dismissed in the same instant). To be fair, lack of character development doesn't always have to be the kiss of death for a story, but here it's almost as if the filmmakers never even believed what they were doing might have had any kind of narrative potential, so they just decided to say "screw it" and phone every single second in, perhaps to the detriment of a cast that was at least willing to show some effort, only to watch it all get squashed.

    I'll admit it is interesting that King's name has been removed from the show credits. This makes me wonder if my thoughts on possible executive tampering might be more justified. Maybe King and Baer saw their original plans taken out of their hands and so just decided to leave the project to its fate. There's no guarantee that's what happened, unless someone blows a whistle somewhere, however if that were the case, then it wouldn't surprise me at all as an explanation for how quick the show fell from grace.

    In many ways, the whole affair has made so little impact on me as a viewer, that I really can't find much to talk about, even if just to criticize it. It was so bad there's pretty much no impression for me to go on.

    On the whole, all I can say is that pretty much from its multi-page beginning to its embarrassing television end, the "Under the Dome" concept, the idea of people trapped in a single place, has, for my money, just never been developed in any creative or engaging way in either of its versions. I sometimes wish King had stuck with his idea of setting the whole thing in a big apartment complex, as that seemed like a more sure bet.

    However, I think its best just to move on and see what's down the road apiece. In order not to leave on a sour note, here's this YouTube trailer for an upcoming Starz series. When I first saw, I believe my reaction was something like YEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAHH!!!! This looks like something I can look forward to.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unnLg1TPCYM

    ChrisC



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    1. "To be fair, lack of character development doesn't always have to be the kiss of death for a story, but here it's almost as if the filmmakers never even believed what they were doing might have had any kind of narrative potential, so they just decided to say "screw it" and phone every single second in, perhaps to the detriment of a cast that was at least willing to show some effort, only to watch it all get squashed." -- I think that is an excellent summation of the show's biggest problem. In some ways, I think television is all about character, and if you get that right then you can go almost anywhere with a story. UTD got it very wrong.

      Regarding that "Ash vs. Evil Dead" trailer, what I'll say is this: it looks like fun. But I have to be honest and confess that I've never seen "Evil Dead II" or "Army of Darkness," so the whole thing is maybe a bit lost on me. They've been on my list for years; I've just never pulled the trigger on it.

      I hope the show is a big hit for Starz, though. I'm all for there being another programmer out there doing quality hit shows. They've already got "Outlander," which is a good one, if maybe a bit too rapey.

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  5. Is the hiatus continuing?

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  6. Finally forced myself to watch the last few episodes in order to discuss the final season for an upcoming podcast episode over at Lilja's. Good Lord this was bad. If there was ever an example of throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks, this is it. The show was so terrible, even the stuff that didn't stick, seem to be used.

    I got a chuckle during the King / Lee event where King tried to distance himself from the TV show when referencing his book. But he doesn't come out squeaky clean with this adaptation given his involvement with it.

    It really blows my mind that so many people associated with Lost could serve up something so sloppy. For would be writers - especially TV ones - this is a textbook case of how not to write a series. From that perspective - well worth studying.

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    1. I look forward to hearing you and Hans rip it to shreds. That should be fun!

      Yeah, that moment in the Lee Child talk was pretty interesting, wasn't it? I would love to know whether he was secretly down on it the whole time, or if maybe being on Twitter and hearing so many negative opinions of it influenced his own opinion after the fact.

      For my part, the whole thing just makes me angry. I like the novel a lot, and I especially like the sci-fi elements that come into play toward the end. It's always annoyed me that the show's producers seemed to treat those elements as things they needed to apologize for and (in their adaptation) avoid like the plague. And then they end up doing something way weirder! Not only weirder, mind you, but also a LOT less interesting. It's as if they were telling fans of the book, "Hey, you know...that thing you like kind of sucks, so we're going to fix it for you by making it REALLY suck."

      Imagine how embarrassed most of the cast must feel of it, too. Especially Dean Norris. You come straight off of "Breaking Bad" onto THAT?!? Sheesh.

      I continue to be baffled that Hollywood has so much trouble getting Stephen King right. What a shame.

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  7. Off topic, but you did say to send you the link if I started a Stephen King fan-casting blog. Well, I did. Only two posts so far, one an introductory post, but it's a start, and there's more to come.

    You can find it here: http://adaptingstephenking.blogspot.ca/

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    1. Cool! Thanks for the update, I will check it out.

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  8. I was willing to accept what I consider an "alternate reality" version of The Dome in the first season, just as I did with A&E's Bates Motel [a FAR better series] but by season 2 The Dome lost me as a viewer. I test drove one episode in season 3 and bailed permanently.

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    1. You made the correct decision! It's got occasional moments that work, but they are few and far between, and they are sandwiched between moments of pure dreck.

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