I've enjoyed Under the Dome more frequently than not, but even during its best episodes I've occasionally found myself secretly shaking my head a bit, wondering why it isn't better. It seems like every week, there is at least one scene that just makes me want to slap myself in the face.
And to be honest, that's the way I felt about a great deal of this episode. I liked parts of it, but on the whole, it's my least-favorite episode since "The Fire" way back in the show's second week.
To help explain why that is, I've lined up a special guest interview with none other than yours truly, Bryant Burnette. Let's see what the two of us had to talk about!
Q: You didn't like this episode, did you, Bryant?
A: Bryant, I really kind of didn't. I wish I had.
Q: Do you really? Or are you just saying that? I mean, look...people on various messageboards and Facebook and whatnot have accused you of being "humorless," "ponderous," "tedious," "pedantic," and "an asshole." Be honest: aren't you at least a few of those things?
A: Well...probably. I'm also fresh out of give-a-shit on those subjects. What's your point?
Q: My point is, haven't you secretly been hating this series all along, but writing good reviews of it in an attempt to...
Q: You didn't let me finish.
A: I sure didn't. Whatever you were going to say wasn't worth me hearing. No, I have definitely not been hating the series all along. I've liked every episode except for...well, if you count this one, I've liked all of them except for three (1.01, 1.02, and 1.09).
Q: Okay. I stand corrected!
A: I have secretly -- or, in some cases, not-so-secretly -- been feeling as if it isn't a particularly good show, though.
Q: You've been...wait, what? I thought you just said you like it!
A: Oh, I do.
Q: But you...hold on a second here, you're confusing the mess outta me. How can you like it if you think it's not "a particularly good show"? That don't make sense!
A: Sure it does! I love Taco Bell, and nobody is under the impression that what they sell at Taco Bell is good food. Right?
Q: Uh...I'm not following you.
A: Okay, think of it like this. What does the word "good" mean?
Q: It means, uh...it means...hell, I don't know! It means "good." I don't know other than that!
A: Let me help. One definition is "satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree." So, in the case of assessing a television show, we'd focus on the "satisfactory in quality" element.
Q: Why not quantity?
A: Well, I mean...if you're judging a series based on whether there are a satisfactory number of episodes, then you and I may as well be speaking different languages. "Yummy! What a great meal! My tacos had dog turds instead of ground beef and fresh green grass instead of shredded cheese, but at least there were nine of them!" Ya know?
A: Gross, indeed. So, "satisfactory in quality" it is.
Q: Okay, fair enough. But I still don't understand how you're saying something you like is bad.
A: Well...I'm not saying it's bad. I wouldn't go that far. But at the same time, I'm not sure Under the Dome is good. In fact, I'm fairly sure it isn't. But that still leaves a lot of room in the middle. That's where I think Under the Dome lives; parts of it are good, parts of it aren't, and the sum total of the whole is...just somewhere in the middle.
A: Think of it like this. There is no universally-accepted definition of what the phrase "satisfactory in quality" means, is there?
A: Right. So, if "good" means "satisfactory in quality," how do we know what good is?
Q: It's...individual opinion?
A: Yes! Yes, indeed. Every one of us ends up deciding what is and isn't good. We've all got different criteria for doing so, too. Some of us might decide that "good" is merely defined as being "things we like." And if that's as far as you want to go with it, then I guess that's far enough. For you. For me, I try to go a little further with it.
Q: I don't know what that means.
A: It means that in the case of a series like Under the Dome, I'm watching it in two different ways simultaneously. One part of me is watching it for the sheer entertainment value, meaning I'm watching on the "I like this" or "I don't like this" level. The other part of me is trying to figure out the intent behind the show. What is it communicating? Is it doing so effectively? Is it inventive in terms of how it goes about it? Stuff like that. But sometimes, the answers to all of those questions can be "no," and yet I'll still find myself enjoying the sum despite my feelings that the individual parts aren't that great.
A: Maybe! Maybe. It's all really quite natural to me; to me, it's a matter of having standards, but not always feeling the need to be beholden to them.
Q: You've mostly made my brain hurt.
A: Sorry 'bout that. Here's a photo of Colin Ford chasing a chicken:
Q: I feel better now. Thanks!
A: Don't mention it. You might want to ask me something about this episode, though; otherwise, we'll be here all night. And I'm friggin' tired, so let's get a move on.
Q: Okay. So, if I'm reading you correctly, I think you probably are of the opinion that "The Fourth Hand" was a bad episode?
A: Hmm...well, again, I don't think I'd go quite so far as to say "bad." There were good scenes; too many of them to write off the whole episode. But some of it really was bad, I thought.
Q: Was Joe chasing chickens on that list?
A: Eh...sorta. I mean, in and of itself, it's okay; if this had been Hurley on Lost, I'd probably have loved it. Even better if it was Sawyer. But Joe, to me, is a problematic character in general. Mostly this is because I just don't think Colin Ford is a very good actor. I feel bad about saying that.
Q: Well, you have been called an asshole, so...
A: Yeah, yeah. Maybe it's true. But I'm sorry, I just don't think Colin Ford is very good. He's got this "aw-shucks" kind of blandness to him; he seems like he got scooped up by a TARDIS in the year 1947, and then dropped off in 2011, and having had two years to learn how to fit in has only sorta managed to get the job done. He's all wide eyes and "gosh!" and "gee-whillikers!" He never actually says that, but he may as well. And when Norrie does things like talk about him being shirtless, it makes me a little ill, because that must be what it sounds like to hear a pederast talk. Dude looks 13; let's leave all forms of sexiness out of the equation, mm-kay?
Q: He apparently has lots of fans. They call themselves "Colinites."
A: They need to call themselves up a better obsession.
Q: Don't be a dick.
A: Sorry! I mean, look, I'm sure he's a nice kid and everything, but he's just got no edge to him; it's like watching a bowl of oatmeal chase a chicken. "Man," you say to yourself, "that bowl of oatmeal ain't goan catch shit..."
Q: Let's move on. What else did you not like?
A: In a word: Maxine. In two words: Natalie Zea.
A: Yeah. Yeah, I thought she was really, really bad. Not the performance so much as the character; but I don't the performance helped the character much. She -- I think -- is supposed to be this powerful enigma, a walking mystery who has the ability to take the series and turn it on its head. And hey, who knows? Maybe that'll happen. I've changed my mind before (such as with Alexander Koch as Junior, who is now one of my favorite parts of the show, but was someone I thought was terrible the first couple of episodes). For now, though, I don't buy a second of it. I don't buy that she is the type of person who would wield that much power; I don't buy that she would be able to keep herself hidden inside the dome for that many days; I don't buy that Barbie would have had a fling with her (there were zero sparks between Zea and Mike Vogel, and say what you want about the Barbie/Julia plotline, but there are at least a few sparks between the two actors). Every moment she was onscreen just felt flat and phony to me. It might merely have been bad writing and/or bad direction; but I'm afraid it's more a case of a bad character.
Q: Did you notice who directed this episode?
A: Sure did! Roxann Dawson, who was once B'Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager.
Q: Big Voyager fan, are you?
A: Yeah, you know? I am. It's pretty solid. Dawson has done a lot of directing, including a very good episode of Lost from the second season, "The Long Con." She felt a little lost here at times, though.
A: Well...the scene where Big Jim goes to get Ted Bundy's guns.
Q: Ted who?!?
A: IMDb says the character's name is Ted Utley, but when I heard it, my ears insisted on hearing "Ted Bundy." So that's how I'm going to think of him from now on. Either way, the scene just didn't work terribly well. There was no particular tension to it. If there isn't going to be tension in a scene like that, there'd better be pathos; and there was no pathos, either. The actor playing Ted wasn't at all convincing; that was the problem. Dawson probably couldn't do much with the scene, given that, but regardless, it didn't work.
Q: I didn't much like the scene with the meth addict, either.
A: This is about ME, not you.
A: But yes, the meth-head was kinda crappy. And for the record, the drug is evidently called "rapture."
Q: Sort of summons up images of a super-ecstasy.
A: Yeah. I'm sure we'll find out way more about that. I'm already not sure I care.
Q: So, what do you care about? What worked for you here?
A: Well, all the stuff with the minidome going missing was cool. I like that it went missing; I like how they discovered it was missing; I like the revelation of where it went, and how it got there. And I like the things they find out at the end: that Joe, Norrie, and Angie all seem to be serving as three parts of a four-part lock of some sort. Now, they've just got to find that fourth hand, to figure out what this is all about.
Q: You don't actually think it'll be that easy, do you?
A: Nah. Not for a second. But so far, I feel like this particular element -- the mythology of the dome -- is in good hands. I've enjoyed all of that so far. Another thing this scene brought out for me -- and here I have to give credit to Bryan McMillan of Dog Star Omnibus, who pointed this out in an email before I'd thought of it in such terms -- is that it introduced a nice new dynamic into the mix character-wise. So far, the producers have been quite good at finding ways to move those character relationships into new configurations on a regular basis. The result has been that even when the plot is letting me down, or even when the performances are letting me down, I'm still interested in the characters. Tell me the truth: based on the first few episodes, did you assume Angie would be trapped in the fallout shelter the entire season?
Q: Yeah. I did.
A: Me too. Instead, that got flipped on its head, and she's out. And she's quickly built substantial relationships with both Big Jim and Norrie, and also now with the tandem of Joe and Norrie, turning that into a trio. It's a trio that seems destined to turn into a quartet, too.
Q: Who do you think the fourth will be?
A: The obvious choice would be Benny. But my guess is that it ends up being someone we haven't met yet. Or maybe even -- horrifyingly -- Junior.
A: Yeah, which is why it'll probably end up being him.
Q: But you still like Junior?
A: I do. I think he's turning into a very interesting character, and I think Alexander Koch continues to do well at playing him. He's got edge when he needs it, he's got softness when he needs it; he's crazy, but he's also obviously right about some things, and yet clearly that doesn't negate the craziness.
Q: Anything else you'd like to mention?
A: Hmm... Yeah, how about Carolyn still being offscreen? That's unacceptable for two consecutive episodes. Unless it ends up having major ramifications for the story, that feels to me like a writer's room that was either too lazy to write Carolyn into these episodes, or was too unsure about the willingness of the CBS audience to watch a lesbian in explicit grief. One episode, I could kinda live with; two is just bad.
Q: What did you think of the gun-buyback program?
A: I thought it was a bit too on-the-nose. And I'm not sure it matches up with King's politics very well, which concerns me a bit. What I mean by that is that I get the feeling that King himself would probably advocate a massive voluntary-gun-buyback program. So the fact that the series sticks that plot into the scheming hands of Big Jim Rennie, who is maybe not quite a villain on the series but is certainly an antagonist...I don't know that that is keeping close to King's sensibilities. That feels like a minor misstep. Apart from that, I thought there were probably things left on the table there, thematically. On a better version of this show, the focus might have been on one of the minor characters we already know, wrestling with the decision. Do I give up this tiny bit of freedom in favor of bringing in a bit more food and power? Or do I gamble that at some point down the line, I might need this weapon? There's a powerful, complex story to be told there; this series seems to have no interest in telling it. I mean, what would that have looked like on Battlestar Galactica, you know? So far, this series isn't in the vicinity of that show; and it's really not showing signs of trying to go in that direction. And that seems like a bit of a shame to me.
Q: So...in some ways, you think this is a good show because it mostly entertains you. But in others you think it's a bad one because it's failing to live up to its potential. Have I got it?
A: Yes! Yes, you've got it. Others will disagree; some will think it's garbage all around, and others will think it's great all around. Me? I'm in the middle, and I can move to one side or the other depending on how an individual episode works for me. This week, I'm further toward the negative. Let's hope next week shoves me back the other way.
Q: Maybe you'll even like Maxine next week.
A: Stranger things have happened.