Television
5:42 pm
Thu June 20, 2013

'Dome' Luck: On CBS, A Drama About Getting Stuck With Each Other

Originally published on Fri June 21, 2013 3:55 pm

One of the most anticipated shows of the summer, Under the Dome, starts Monday on CBS. It's about a tiny New England town that's suddenly and mysteriously sealed off by an impenetrable dome.

The series is the first on-screen collaboration between two of the biggest Steves in popular culture — Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.

"The Steven Squared, we call it," cracks Neal Baer, an executive producer of the show.

In the TV show, as in the King novel it's based on, that forbidding dome crashes down out of nowhere. At first, people think there's been an earthquake or natural disaster. Gradually they realize they're completely cut off. No phones, Internet or television.

Anyone attempting to leave or enter the town smashes into invisible barriers. Families are separated. Tourists are literally trapped. The military swarms in, trying to intervene, but the town's citizens are stuck — with each other.

That turns the little town of Chester's Mill into a societal Petri dish, Baer points out.

"How are they going to get along? How's the government going to work? Who's going to be in charge?"

Such questions fascinate both Spielberg and King, even though the two men seem so very different in their outlook.

"Stephen King is someone who has the ability to see the worst in humanity," says writer Brian K. Vaughan, contrasting that pessimism with Spielberg's glowing idealism. "They're kind of polar opposites. But there's a little bit of overlap in the Venn diagram, because they're both such aggressive humanists."

Under the Dome explores a number of pressing topical issues: climate change, the collapse of small American towns, how to deal with dwindling resources.

"It was really written from a place of anger," Baer observes. "I think King was angry about the direction the country was taking, and how we were treating each other, and how we were treating the planet. Yet it never comes off as a screed."

Instead, it's almost a meditation on how quickly a society can dissolve. Annalee Newitz, who edits the science fiction website io9, says the notion of a town sequestered under a dome is not exactly original.

"You could even claim it goes back to No Exit, where people are trapped in hell together," she says. Among the pop-culture Petri dishes since Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play, Newitz points to films and TV shows as various as the depressing German movie Die Wand (2012), the Simpsons movie that put Springfield under a dome (2007), and an old Twilight Zone episode from 1960 about a suburb that lapses into mob rule after locals become convinced aliens have sealed it off.

"And so the dome becomes the magnifying glass we use to look into these terrifying examples of human relationships," Newitz wryly observes.

Newitz was impressed by Under the Dome's television adaptation — or at least by the first episode, which was all critics were able to see in advance. Especially by the special-effects bits, as when one poor cow, standing exactly in the wrong place when the dome slams down, gets perfectly bisected.

"No cows were injured! This was not a real cow," Baer hastens to explain.

"It's a woodchuck in the book," Vaughan adds. "That was one of my first tentative changes, and I asked Stephen King if it would be OK. I thought an adorable woodchuck getting split in half ... we'd lose our audience."

Vaughan and Baer expect Under the Dome to last well past one season. In fact, they frankly relish the idea of trapping the citizens of Chester's Mill under the dome for years.

"Oh, my God, what are we going to do when Chester's Mill runs out of coffee?" Vaughan wonders. "That is really when the true horror begins."

Of all the horror Stephen King has unleashed — homicidal cars, killer clowns, towns seething with vampires — a world without coffee might be his most terrifying yet.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

"Under The Dome" is one of the most anticipated TV shows of the summer. It starts Monday on CBS. The show takes place in a tiny New England town that's suddenly mysteriously sealed off by an impenetrable dome. And as we hear from NPR's Neda Ulaby, "Under The Dome" comes from two very famous Stevens.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This is the first time we'll see an onscreen collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.

NEAL BAER: The Steven Squared, we call it.

ULABY: That's Neal Baer, executive producer.

BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: I was hugely intimidated.

ULABY: That's Brian K. Vaughan. He wrote the first episode. In the show, like the novel, the dome crashes down out of nowhere. People think it's an earthquake or a natural disaster.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW "UNDER THE DOME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have a problem here. All our landlines are dead.

ULABY: No phones, no Internet or television. If you try to get in or out, you smash into invisible barriers.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "UNDER THE DOME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stop the truck.

ULABY: Parents are cut off from children. Tourists are literally trapped. The military swarms in, trying rescue the town but its citizens are stuck with each other.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "UNDER THE DOME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Our daughter is sick. We need to get her to a real doctor. I mean, even if they can't knock that wall down, they can still airlift her out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, I don't know. But if those eggheads out there can drop a car on Mars, they sure as hell can figure this out, too.

ULABY: The little town becomes a societal Petri dish, says producer Neal Baer.

BAER: How are they going to get along? How is the government going to work? Who's going to be in charge?

ULABY: Such questions fascinate both Stevens, even though the two seem so different on the surface.

VAUGHAN: Stephen King is someone who, you know, has the ability to see the worst in humanity.

ULABY: Take "Carrie" or "The Shining." Whereas, Steven Spielberg's world, says Vaughan, just glows with idealism.

VAUGHAN: They're kind of polar opposites. But there's a little bit of overlap in the Venn diagram, because I think they're both such aggressive humanists.

ULABY: The show manages to raise topical issues: climate change, the collapse of small American towns, how to deal with dwindling resources.

BAER: It was really written from a place of anger.

ULABY: Executive producer Neal Baer says when "Under The Dome" was published in 2009, Stephen King had a lot on his mind.

BAER: I think King was angry about the direction the country was taking and how we were treating each other and how we were treating the planet. Yet, it never comes off as a screed.

ULABY: Instead, it's almost a meditation on how quickly a society can dissolve. That's suggested in a scene between a cautious, reasonable town sheriff and a politician scheming to exploit the situation's instability.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "UNDER THE DOME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What happens if this thing lasts for days or weeks?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Well, we might need more manpower to maintain the peace.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What are you getting at, Jim?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Well, during emergencies, councilmen have the power to authorize additional police officers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The last thing this mess needs is amateurs with badges. You're not authorizing anything.

ULABY: When it comes to worst case scenarios, you could do worse than checking in with Annalee Newitz. She edits the science fiction website io9, and she just published a book about surviving mass extinctions. She says the idea of a town sequestered under a dome is not exactly original.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: There's actually a lot of stories that have this same idea. I mean, you could even claim it goes back to, you know, "No Exit," where people are trapped in hell together.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "NO EXIT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: There's no need for red hot pokers. Hell is other people.

ULABY: There's also a really depressing German movie about a woman trapped alone.

(SOUNDBITE FROM GERMAN FILM)

ULABY: And the "Simpsons" movie that put Springfield under a dome.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "THE SIMPSONS MOVIE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: The town is running low on supplies of everything from gasoline to Botox.

ULABY: And an old "Twilight Zone" episode where a suburb lapses into mob rule after aliens seal it off.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "TWILIGHT ZONE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Throw them into darkness for a few hours and then sit back and watch the pattern.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: And this pattern is always the same?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find and it's themselves.

NEWITZ: And so, the dome becomes the magnifying glass we use to look into these terrifying examples of human relationships.

ULABY: Newitz liked "Under the Dome," the book and the first episode of the new show. She was impressed by the adaptation and the special effects, like what happens to a poor cow standing in the wrong place when the dome slams down. It's perfectly bisected.

BAER: No cows were injured. This was not a real cow.

ULABY: Executive producer Neal Baer points out the cow was writer Brian K. Vaughan's gory idea.

VAUGHAN: It's a woodchuck in the book and that was one of my first tentative changes, but I asked Stephen King if it would be okay. I thought an adorable woodchuck getting split in half, we'd lose our audience.

ULABY: Both Vaughan and Baer expect "Under the Dome" to exceed its planned season of 13 episodes. In fact, they frankly relish the idea of trapping the citizens of Chester's Mill under the dome for years.

VAUGHAN: Oh, my God, what are we going to do when Chester's Mill runs out of coffee? That is really when the true horror begins.

ULABY: Of all the horror Stephen King has unleashed - homicidal cars, killer clowns, towns filled with vampires - a world without coffee might be his most terrifying yet. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.