By Chuck Barney Contra Costa Times
Apparently one bizarre summer social experiment wasn’t enough for CBS.
The network, for years, has been home to “Big Brother,” a reality series that crams a group of people under one roof, then watches bad things happen to them.
Now comes “Under the Dome,” a crazy sci-fi saga from Stephen King that traps an entire town beneath an impenetrable bubble and chronicles the bad things that happen to them.
You can decide which is the more outlandish — and terrifying.
Silly comparisons aside, “Under the Dome” represents a significant seasonal programming departure. During the summer, the broadcast networks tend to hibernate, mainly offering reruns and low-rent reality fare.
But “Dome,” a 13-episode adaptation of King’s mammoth 2009 best-seller, is big and buzzy “event” TV, designed to seize your attention and pin you to the couch.
Based on its fast-paced and very creepy first hour, it has a great chance to do just that.
Our setting is Chester’s Mill, a seemingly sleepy New England village, where nothing out of the ordinary usually happens — unless you consider the shady drifter (Mike Vogel) who is burying a dead body out in the woods, or the power-hungry councilman (Dean Norris) who has been stockpiling massive amounts of propane for some unknown reason.
Then one day, out of the blue, a huge transparent force field inexplicably descends from the sky, slicing houses, buildings and one very unlucky cow in half. Planes, cars and birds crash into it. Everyone completely freaks out.
Naturally, questions abound: Is this an act of God? Terrorists? Is it some kind of demented government experiment? All anyone knows at the start is that the dome can’t be breached — and that if you touch it, you get a significant zap, which can be hell on pacemakers.
“It’s like we’re stuck in a giant fish bowl,” a perplexed resident observes.
In the years since “Lost,” television has had plenty of these high-concept survival sagas that focus on how people react to sudden, cataclysmic happenings. Think: “The Walking Dead,” “Falling Skies” and “Revolution.”
The best ones are able to take a seemingly ludicrous premise and ground it in compelling personal stories.
For the most part, “Under the Dome” accomplishes this. You immediately want to know why that drifter was digging a grave in the middle of nowhere, or what the megalomaniacal councilman has up his sleeve.
On other fronts, you fear for newspaper editor Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre), whose husband, a doctor, is nowhere to be found.
And you wonder what will become of the young diabetic (Samantha Mathis) who just happened to be passing through this “Twilight Zone” of a town when the mysterious dome dropped.
Tonight’s tension-filled opener quickly puts these storylines, and others, into play — sometimes too quickly and awkwardly.
While “Under the Dome” succeeds in generating plenty of thrills and chills, it doesn’t come close to matching the pilots of “Lost” or “The Walking Dead” in terms of overall tone and creative brilliance.
Still, the first hour delivers lots of popcorn thrills. And in coming episodes, you just know the town’s resources will dwindle, anxieties will increase, alliances will be formed and dark secrets will be revealed.
“Under the Dome” begins tonight at 10 on CBS.