Monday, August 10, 2015

Why I Watch Under the Dome [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Damon Knight once reviewed a book thusly: "a plot that is kept in motion solely by the fact that everyone involved is an idiot." That very phrase could be applied to Under the Dome. Let's be honest right up front. Under the Dome is probably the stupidest show on TV. Any reasonable person would say - even science fiction and horror fans who have a much higher resistance to silliness - this show is garbage, let's watch something else. Despite this voice of reason in my head (and my wife's voice in my ears), I watch it anyway.

In Season One we had faith in Stephen King. We thought, okay this is strange but slowly we will get answers. At this point we thought, "King has a plan." We trusted him because he gave us so many great thrills in the past. And there was a book - which I haven't read - but perusing its pages I see familiar names and characters, even if they've been changed a bit. (Though I noticed the show was never sold as Stephen King's Under the Dome. Oddly, Steven Spielberg hasn't been very vocal about his involvement either. Hmm...) Still, 11.2 million viewers in Season One.

During Season Two, things begin to fall off the tracks. Stephen King writes and does a cameo in the opening episode and we hang on tight, hoping things will improve. (This episode was by far the best of the series. Even if the whole show falls into a smouldering pile of rubble, we will still have Season 2, Episode 1.) For example, characters start having things happen to them because, well, something has to happen this episode. My favorite of these MacGuffins is when Julia and Barbie crash in the ambulance and Julia gets a piece of rebar through her leg, then they re-enact a seen from James Cameron's The Abyss. Does it further the story of Chester's Mill? Not at all. Does it give Barbie a chance to be heroic, of course. But you know it's filler. Still 7.2 million viewers...

Worse yet, the woman who was shot twice in the chest and had rebar shoved through her leg will be up and running around Nancy Drew-style for the rest of the season. Each season is a week in the life of Chester's Mill and in Season Three (a week later), Julia's all better and the bandage over her jeans (that's all you need for a rebar puncture, I guess) is there, but it's on the wrong leg at one point and pretty much forgotten.

And that's when you realize what Under the Dome is. Like Lost before it, with its ever-shifting ideas, you see the truth. It's Varney the Vampire time. Under the Dome is a modern penny dreadful. (I'm not referring to the show Penny Dreadful, which is probably my favorite show this year. I have only the highest respect for John Logan.) I mean it is the television form of the old penny dreadfuls or penny bloods as they were known. These cheap serials were sold to the masses at a time when novels were very expensive. The average three part novel (The Mysteries of Udolpho, for example) was published in separate parts and sold largely to libraries. The wealthy or middle class didn't buy the books, but paid for a yearly subscription to mobile libraries. So if you had money, you only had to wait three times for the whole story. But if you were poor, you paid a penny a week and got the story a hundredth at a time. Or in the case of Varney, 220ths at a time. Anyone reading the story in this fashion could not be expected to remember all the details. And they certainly expected something to happen in each chapter.

The penny bloods offered up characters like Varney the Vampire by Thomas Preskett Prest (or James Malcolm Rymer, you decide) with 876 double-sided pages equalling 667,000 words. (To put that in perspective, that's the length of two GRR Martin Song of Fire and Ice books.) There was also Wagner the Wehr-Wolf by George WM Reynolds at over 211,000 words. This seems less impressive but Reynolds also wrote The Mysteries of London at a whopping two and half million words. Writing this kind of story required the author to add more and more incidents, dropping story lines, adding new characters. Sound familiar?

Despite having the ability to remember what happened in Episode 1, Under the Dome fans don't bother to recall certain details. Like the fact that Big Jim Renny has murdered a lot of people to keep his illegal gas business secret. That he converted to believing the Dome was heaven-sent and needed to be worshipped. That he got the egg outside the Dome. None of that matters. All you need to know in Season Three is he is one of the Good Guys, interfering with the alien-possessed Kinship, led by Marg Helgenberger's character, Christine. (Helgenberger should be familiar with King-style alien takeovers, because she was in the miniseries of The Tommyknockers in 1993.) Can't keep up? It doesn't matter, because something else will happen this week. An apocalypse may wipe out the world outside the dome. Or not, depending on which week you watch. By next season (if God help us there is a Season Four!) it will al be co-opted by a new explanation.

And that's why I watch Under the Dome. I may be one of the dwindling numbers, (down twenty percent from last week's episode), but I watch to see how crazy it will be this week. What previous story details will be conveniently ignored? Which of the good guys will become bad guys and vice versa? I sit there, daring the writers to outrage me. To come up with the crazy, stupidest crap imaginable. It's not what TV is supposed to be, but this is the 19th Century - I mean, 21st Century. (And if I get tired of it I can always go watch The Strain. Del Toro wrote three books and the show has a plan!) The penny dreadful has returned and it is called Under the Dome!

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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