There’s no question that CBS’s summer gambit, Under the Dome, is so far a rousing success. Its premiere episode drew 13.5 million viewers—more than any summer drama debut since 1992, a time before a wealth of original cable programming changed the broadcasting game, when audiences were offered little besides reruns to watch until September. With DVR and on-demand viewings added in, Dome’s opening numbers grew to nearly 17 million, and its second outing held up unusually well, managing to retain 87 percent of its original audience. The show has performed so strongly, its early ratings are second only to one other new program of the 2012-2013 television season—NBC’s Revolution.
It’s impossible not to note the striking similarities between the networks’ two biggest winners this year. Shocking, unexplainable events suddenly change everything about life as the characters know it. Modern conveniences like electricity and mass communication are no longer available. An interim government arises that, instead of protecting its citizens, uses the crisis as an opportunity to impose a brutish, totalitarian order. In Revolution’s case, the great power outage descends on the entire world; in Under the Dome, the damage is contained to the tiny town of Chester’s Mill, Maine. It suddenly finds itself trapped by an invisible force field. But in both cases individuals must quickly adapt to a primitive new world or become one of its casualties.
With so many of the dystopian stories these days presenting grand-scale, upper-echelon scenarios, Dome’s focus on the small dramas of everyday people comes as a welcome change. There are still great power struggles, but the fact that they occur between the local used car salesman and the deputy sheriff make them much more relatable.
Yet while the show wisely maintains the Anywhere, U.S.A., scope of the Stephen King novel it’s based on, it unfortunately trades several of King’s distinctive characters for boring, modern stereotypes—a hip lesbian couple instead of a surprisingly Republican newspaper reporter and a rebellious, black-lipsticked teen instead of a drug-addicted single mother desperate to do the right things for her child. The show suffers for the changes as the characters tend to speak and act exactly as you’d predict them to.
Yet despite the producers’ inexplicable decision to populate their version of Chester’s Mill with more generic players, Dome is wellplotted and well-paced, and makes for mildly diverting small-screen fare. However, its offensive portrayal of self-professed Christians (it’s not enough that the churchgoers are hypocrites—they’re drug dealing, murderous, egomaniacal hypocrites) will likely keep many believers away, along with sexual situations and explicit violence. But while they may not want to watch the show, those interested in engaging the culture and finding fresh opportunities to point to God’s truth shouldn’t be so quick to write off its appeal.
What Dome, Revolution, and the great zombie masses seem to be tapping into is an overwhelming escalation of collective fear. Everywhere you look these days you find evidence that a pervasive sense that society as we know it is crumbling, while law and order fall to the wayside, has taken hold of Americans. It should come as no surprise then that our feeling that the ground is shifting beneath our feet, able to fall out completely at any moment, is more and more reflected in our entertainment.