A hit TV show does not a good series make
The hit summer series “Under the Dome” wrapped up this week, and I regret to say I wasted an hour of my time watching it every week.
Adapted from the Stephen King novel, the CBS show was a big enough hit that it’s been renewed for another season, and King himself has been tapped to re-configure the plot of the novel so that the story can go on.
Now I’m not above watching bad TV. During a gloomy week in Key West a couple of years ago, trapped in our hotel room while a tropical depression off the coast dumped buckets of rain into the low-lying streets of the island, The Wife and I found ourselves spending more hours than we would have liked in our hotel room. We ran across the show “American Hoggers,” which I believe stars Charlie Daniels and his kids as wild hog hunters in Texas. It was a fascinating train wreck of a show, with sibling fights, a patriarch with a Southern drawl thicker than Mississippi Delta mud and shots of screaming pigs tearing through the underbrush in terror but cut in post-production to appear as if they want to gore every two-legged creature in a three-mile radius.
But “Under the Dome” suffered from a number of problems that couldn’t salvage it, the first of which is, in my opinion, the inability of King’s works to be adapted to the big (or, in this case, small) screen. Granted, there have been some successes — the Jack Nicholson version of “The Shining,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Mist” — but those have more to do with the deft touches of the filmmakers who made them (Stanley Kubrick with “The Shining,” Frank Darabont with the other three) than with the source material.
King’s works, I believe, are inherently unfilmable because of the very strengths that make his books so successful. King has a way of putting the reader inside the minds of his characters, both good and evil, and no amount of on-screen trickery can adequately capture the inner turmoil and thoughts that come across so powerfully through the written word. Watching “Under the Dome,” I kept thinking one thing when actor Dean Norris, who plays the antagonist “Big” Jim Rennie, was on screen: “Hey, why is Hank from ‘Breaking Bad’ trapped under this dome thingy?’”
Which leads me to the biggest problem with “Under the Dome,” and with “Siberia,” and with so much of what passes for television drama these days: How the story drives the characters instead of the other way around.
On its surface, “Under the Dome” is no more fantastical a show than, say, “Lost.” The former centers around an invisible, mysterious and extraterrestrial (not to mention invisible) barrier that descends over a small New England town; the latter is set on a mysterious island that can travel through time and is inhabited by a monster made of smoke. By subscribing to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the suspension of disbelief, we can accept both fantastical premises … as long as the story engrosses us enough to make us care about the characters who populate it.
With “Lost,” with “Breaking Bad,” with “The Walking Dead,” the characters are so rich, so dynamic and so three-dimensional that we accept whatever seemingly preposterous storyline that comes their way, because we believe in them as individuals. They’re not just flat, lifeless names on the pages of a script; they’re brought to life through good writing and good acting and become something more, which is why we find ourselves thinking long after the show goes off about them. We wonder how Walter White is going to put his life back together, we fret over whether Rick Grimes is going to regain his sanity, we obsess over how Jack Shephard is going to get back to that island.
“Under the Dome” is not one of those shows. Deputy Linda Everett, who becomes the de facto sheriff when the dome descends, is, to put it mildly, a moron. She doesn’t seem to have any common sense, and in the season finale we see her wandering around the town square while “Big” Jim marshals the townspeople to build a gallows. She just stands by as justice gets hijacked by Jim, effectively making her character meaningless.
Such lack of attention to plot detail annoys me. It’s lazy writing, and it makes for lousy TV. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is certainly not a big deal, but when you’re always on the hunt for a good story, a good plot and you’ve been gifted with such fabulous series as “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Wire,” “The Sopranos” and “Downton Abbey,” you tend to expect more — especially from a major network like CBS.
More than likely, when “Under the Dome” returns next summer, I’ll be turning the channel. “Breaking Bad” will be done by then, and every time “Big” Jim is on the screen, I’ll probably just want to shake my head and hope that Mr. Norris’s paycheck keeps his lights on and his bills paid adequately. Because no matter how good the character might seem, “Big” Jim Rennie is no Hank Schrader, and “Under the Dome” is no “Breaking Bad.
Then again, few things are. I’ll certainly miss Walter White when he rides off into the sunset (or gets planted in a grave) in a couple of weeks, because he serves to remind us of a very important rule of thumb when it comes to television and the writers who script it: Create us a great character, and we’ll follow your story wherever it leads.
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (email@example.com) or at 981-1144.