Am I crazy, or was that maybe the best episode of the series to date? Could be both. The demons are telling me it's both. They're also telling me to "kill," which I take to mean they want me to do a good job with this review. Chill out, demons, I can't make you no promises about that.
What an odd series Under the Dome is. I'm about halfway convinced that the whole thing is a Truman Show-style experiment designed to gauge my reactions on a week-to-week basis in an attempt to figure out what the range of my potential reactions is. Might be they're testing you, too; but if I found out they had engineered this whole thing only to fuck with my head, I'd be merely a little surprised.
That's exaggeration, of course, but the unexaggerated fact is that I'm not sure I've ever watched a series that has gotten this sort of roller-coaster of shifting reactions out of me. By all rights, I should have given up on the series after about two episodes. Instead, I was determined to stick with it as long as it aired, no matter what. That's the King-phile in me coming out, of course; and also, I suppose, the amateur blogger. I mean, I've given up on King-based shows before (never did make it all the way through The Dead Zone), so it isn't purely brand loyalty. That's part of it, but not the entirety of it.
The rest might simply come down to the nagging suspicion that the series was capable of better, and therefore might theoretically DO better eventually, if only I stuck it out long enough.
This week? By damn, this week's episode is strong enough that it almost feels like the entire production has been rejuvenated. The acting is suddenly better; the editing seems crisper; the score by W.G. Walden (which has actually been quite good all season) has more heft to it; there's less of the "CBS cheese" that faithful commenter Chris C. has (quite rightly) complained about. We're not talking about an episode of True Detective all of a sudden, where everything clicks to an almost super-artistic degree. But we ARE talking about a series that all of a sudden seem to be showing signs that it might have another gear to shift into. Let's admit it: hadn't we all given up thinking that such a thing was even possible? I admit that I had, even when I was hoping I was wrong.
And yet, here I am, making surprised-face and blogging about it.
And a story of sorts begins to form in my mind. It's the story of a series that is trying to put right what once went wrong. That series began its life as a potential one-season adaptation of a lengthy bestselling novel by one of the world's most popular writers. It was intended to live its brief but hopefully glorious life on a premium cable channel called Showtime, and the powers that be hired Brian K. Vaughan, a highly-respected comics writer, to develop and adapt the project. At some point, producer Neal Baer came onboard, and so did Steven Spielberg, who leased his name out and gave the checks to his agent.
Somewhere along the line, the plan got disrupted by Showtime's parent company, CBS, who decided to hijack the series, turn it into a sort of filler program on its summer schedule, and then also -- primarily using the lure of the names "King" and "Spielberg" -- experiment with a plan to presell the series both internationally and to a burgeoning streaming network (Amazon Prime), a plan that essentially made it impossible to lose money on the show regardless of whether or not viewers tuned in.
All of which sounds pretty good, right? One problem: somebody, somewhere got concerned by something. "But, but," you can practically hear this person stammering, "what if it WORKS? Can't there be a second season?" And somebody else, somebody who above all things wants to please their boss(es), pipes up and says, "Uh . . . uh, yeah, sure, there could be a second season, I guess. We'd have to not end the story, but . . . I guess we could do that." This guy's name might have been Brian, but I tend to think it may instead have been Neal. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
"Okay, okay, I like this direction," says bossman. "So what you're saying is there could be a second season if the first one is a hit?"
Blinks, blinks again. "Yes, I think it could be very easily done."
"And a third? A fourth and a fifth? I mean, I'm just spitballing here, but there could be a fifth, right?"
"Yes, sir, absolutely there could be."
"Okay, okay, this is great stuff,
Brian Neal employee."
"It sure is, sir! I'm just..."
"It's just that . . . well, how do we actually . . . do that? I mean, how do we keep the story going that long?"
A dark look passes across his face. "Well, son, that's what I pay YOU for. Figure it out."
In this scenario -- which, I would caution you, is merely a piece of speculative fiction -- there is also one additional detail: production begins on the first season within mere weeks. So all the preproduction work that's been done with a single-season adaptation in mind now has to be thrown out the window. We enter a phase where the production is suddenly, at least from a writing and planning standpoint, flying by the seat of its pants without a day or maybe even an hour to lose. This, my friends, is the fabled "go time," that time when you simply cannot afford the luxury of second-guessing your decisions. You can't spare the time to get things right; you simply have to go.
In the process, you find yourself writing scenes like having a character knock over a burning building with a bulldozer; or like having a character reveal that she's begun an underground fight club. You, sir, are just makin' shit up as you go, because the shit isn't the important part of the equation: the "go" is. And it's go with full-steam ahead. You kind of know that what you're doing doesn't make any sense from a storytelling standpoint, and before long you maybe get the feeling that some of your production decisions haven't been particularly effective; but you can't really do much of anything about that, can you? Bummer; it might bug you if you had time for it to.
Amazingly, the first season is not merely a hit, but a smash hit. The second season is a foregone conclusion, and you find yourself with a bit of time on your hands. Now, the first season completed, you go in for another meeting with your boss.
Brian Neal employee, the ratings are great, they're just great. Amazon loves us, our international buyers love us, our stockholders love us. This is just wonderful."
"Yes, it is." Uncomfortable rustling. "You know who doesn't love us,
Brian Neal employee?"
"The critics don't love us. To be blunt, the critics think we stink. Apparently, the vast majority of Stephen King fans think we stink, too; he had to write a letter and post it on his website to try and calm 'em down. Now,
Brian Neal employee, can you explain to me how you let this happen?"
"Let me stop you right there, because frankly, I don't care how it happened. All I care about is that you fix it."
"Can we hire Stephen King to help do that?"
"Son, we're CBS, we can hire the Pope if we need to. Make it happen."
From here, our tale becomes murkier and less distinct, because the end result has not yet become apparent. I would speculate that it involves said hired gun coming in and consulting with a roomful of people and the group of them jointly determining that their second season would begin at Point A and end at Point M. How they would get from A to M was less important, and anyways, didja see that clock? We're almost at go time again, fellers, so let's start wrapping things up.
Oh, and at some point in this process, Brian quits and goes back to working on his award-winning comic-books. Has he perhaps become frustrated with this process? Has he clashed with some other prominent personage on the project? Has he been fired? Had he only ever planned to work on the show for a single season? These questions cannot currently be answered, but we know based on certain comments he made that he was frustrated with the end result of the first season; and we know that he is said to have helped develop the course of the second season. So signs point toward a forced separation; an outplacement program of sorts, perhaps.
Regardless, between this week's episode and the one or two episodes previous to it, I'm beginning to develop a suspicion as to what some of that course-correction may have been all about. Not in terms of the specifics of where the story is heading; I don't even have a guess as to that. No, I mean the rough intent of the behind-the-scenes machinations that are powering the series. If my speculations are accurate (and that's a BIG "if"), then we are getting closer and closer to that hypothetical Point M. And if you accept my assertion, which is that the last couple of checkpoints along the way (Points H and I, let's call 'em) have contained stronger and more confident storytelling, then it begins to seem plausible that their relative strength is due to their increasing proximity to Point M.
And IF that's the case, then it might be that those less-successful points along the way (let's call them Points B, C, D, E, F, and G) were as weak as they were because of their relative proximity to last season.
In other words, it begins to seem possible to me that the first six-to-seven episodes of the season sucked because they were stuck in what-the-show-used-to-be mode, whereas these last couple have evidenced improvement because they are the first true steps along the path to what the show is in the process of becoming.
If so, then Under the Dome really might be on the cusp of finally turning into a good series. Or something resembling good, at least. And unless I am mistaken, the route the writers and producers are taking to get there is increasingly built on simply ignoring much of what did not work during the first season (and during the beginning of the second). In other words, they're all going with the "ah, fuck it" approach and just doing what they want to do.
Hence, the fact that the town is trapped under a dome kind of doesn't matter that much any more. Hence, it doesn't matter that the show's big romantic duo (Julia and Barbie) barely know each other, and that their relationship was founded with Julia's husband's corpse barely in the ground; it seemingly never mattered, as far as the writers were concerned, but now they've decided to simply invest in it 100% and allow their audience to either accept it or reject it. Either way, they're done with any wishy-washiness about it.
They've also decided that the seeming fact of Junior being a semi-crazed kidnapper and detainee of women . . . does not matter; he can now be totally sympathetic. That Big Jim being a full-blown, mustache-twirling villain to the extent of murdering poor helpless radio producer Dodee . . . does not matter; he's still redeemable. Carolyn, the bald lesbian mother . . . she hella doesn't matter; she and Phil the deejay-turned-sheriff-turned-terrorist aren't even worth killing off, apparently. Whether this is because the series is simply going to ignore them or because the producers want to put them to some use later is unclear. (It's not looking good for Phil, though, given that Nicholas Strong's name no longer appears in the credits; I'm not sure whether it was there last week or not, but I paid attention this time, and his name was nowhere to be seen. For a guy who was a regular cast member, that means he's been shown an exit door somewhere. Which begs the question, why not just kill the character? But we're not here to talk about Phil, so forget I brought it up.)
Hellfire, man, it's unclear whether the apparitions who apparently run the dome even matter anymore! I suspect they're not gone, but would I bet money on that? I would not.
All of which means that the series has, during this second season, been massively awful on many, many levels. So, how can we reconcile that fact/opinion with the fact/opinion that the last two episodes have, relatively speaking, been quite good?
My only choice, clearly, has been to concoct a fictional version of how that might have happened at the behind-the-scenes level. In so doing, I clearly seized on the hope that What It All Means is that the show is headed in a good direction, one which will help it become something new and vital and alive in a way it has not been previously. Freed of the dome, the series has taken on a life of its own; or, at least, it's shown signs of life. Freed of the need for its characters to actually make sense, the producers have perhaps finally settled on sensible definitions for them; and, unburdened of the week-to-week inconsistencies, the characters have begun to resemble real people. They still don't make any sense in the grand scheme of the entire series, but it may be that the first season broke them so far beyond repair that that is a lost cause; so in essence, the producers are ignoring as much of the first season as they can.
You see what this series has done to me? It's turned me into a crazy person, writing the tv-recap equivalent of conspiracy theory. But to be honest, the show's trajectory has been so insane that insanity seems like the only sane response to it.
Anyways, it occurs to me that I have not actually discussed this week's episode yet, so let's do that now.
I'm too lazy to put together actual paragraphs, and coherency does not seem to be with me tonight, so we're going to simply look at the screencaps I took, and maybe I'll toss a few comments in to sweeten 'em a bit.
|Barbie has been captured by the black-ops guys who have been placed in charge of security around the dome. Mike Vogel is good in all of these scenes; he seems to be relishing the opportunity to do something that isn't 100% stoopid.|
|Big Jim notices that Junior's car is parked nearby. A bit later, he tests Junior to see whether his son will be honest with him.|
|Speaking of father/son relationships, Don Barbara sanctions the use of any means necessary in getting Dale to coerce Julia into bringing the egg with her. Don Barbara is kind of an a-hole.|
|Two babes and a doofus. Even Peter Weller can't do anything with Joe.|
|If I'm not mistaken, this is a foreshadowing of the weird smoke-vortex thingy that appears inside the cave later on.|
|I loved this scene with Big Jim "talking" to the soldier outside. I'm not even sure why I loved it; the score was part of it, lending a lot of tense energy to the proceedings.|
|Our logical assumption here is that Jim is going to do something that is self-serving at best and downright evil at worst. But, no:|
|More Dwight Yoakam, please.|
|Once they are in the cave which will theoretically lead them back into the dome, this vortex thingy appears and seemingly communicates with Sam, Barbie, and Pauline.|
|We see a flashback -- the series' first? -- in which Sam consoles (and disappoints) young Junior after his mother's "death."|
|We then see a flashback to the day Barbie put this handprint on the fresh paint. (I assume it was a yellow door that had been painted red?)|
|Pauline does not experience a flashback; she instead has what she describes as a premonition. And, yet again, it involves...|
|Sherry Stringfield's best moment so far comes when she goes to Junior's room and gets a look at the remnants of the years of his life of which she has deprived herself. The score is great in this scene, too.|
|Can't help but notice that snowglobe.|
|The moment is interrupted by Pauline turning and seeing...|
|...that her husband knows she is there. I look forward to seeing the rest of this scene next week.|
So, yeah, for me, that was pretty good stuff. Not flawless, by any means, but I'd give it a solid thumbs-up, and that's maybe only the second or third time this series has earned that from me.
Can it continue? Well, my fingers are damn sure crossed.
Sorry for the inane jibber-jabber this week, folks, but that's what came rollin' out when the time to blog came upon me.
Say, demon, did I "kill" enough for you? What's that you say? You stopped paying attention hours ago?!? Well, phooey on you too, you sorry devil.
See y'all next week!