[Spoiler Alert!! If you have not seen the pilot episode, this review contains numerous spoilers.]
Stephen King's teleplays for his many mini-series (usually three to six episodes) have ranged from superb (Storm of the Century, The Shining) to good (It, The Stand) to silly but fun (The Langoliers). However, his work has never been turned into a full-season TV series until now. And if he and the other writers can sustain the level of intrigue and character development of the pilot episode, they may have a hit on their hands.
Set in the present day, the first half of the pilot introduces us to our primary characters, who are either denizens of or passing through Chester's Mill, a small town in Anywhere, U.S.A. the episode opens with one man burying another, clearly surreptitiously. We learn that the burier is nicknamed "Barbie," and was hoping to do his business and leave quickly. We next see high school grad sweethearts Junior (that's his name) and Angie having sex. But when Junior, who is deeply in love with Angie (and is already a bit unstable), realizes that she does not feel the same, he snaps and becomes a full-fledged psychopath, kidnapping Angie (the classic "if I can't have you, no one can" ploy), locking her in a storm cellar, taking an unhealthy interest in the possibilities of his knife, and walking around town threateningly.
We also meet Big Jim Rennie (Junior's father), a town councilman (unaware of his son's instability -- or the presence of Angie in his storm cellar) for whom the soon-to-come incident brings out a growing power-hunger; the honest (and pacemaker-wearing) sheriff, and his equally honest partner, Linda; Julia, the editor (and a reporter) of the local paper; a lesbian couple and their daughter, who are just passing through; Angie's brother, a somewhat geeky kid; the two people who run the local radio station; and a few other townsfolk.
Halfway through the pilot comes the "incident." After a minute or two of earthquake-type rumbling and tornado-type winds, an invisible and impenetrable "dome" literally cuts off the town from the rest of the world. We are shown the effects of the appearance of this dome via the literal bisecting of a standing cow and a nearby house, a small plane crashing into it, and a truck that also crashes into it. We learn that it has enveloped an area of approximately 20 square miles, and seems to have no height limit. The dome gives off a mild electric-type shock the first time one touches it, but not after that. And although the dome is only perhaps an inch thick, even sound cannot penetrate it: people on either side cannot hear people on the other.
Of course, once the dome is in place, the U.S. military shows up, as do the media. We also learn that 14 people died as a result of injuries sustained from the initial appearance of the dome, and that power is out (except if one has a generator), including power to the gas pumps at the local station. We also find out a few other intriguing things -- some of which are sure to be McGuffins, while others will undoubtedly lead to important plot developments: that the town council has been secretly stockpiling propane; that two people have had unexplained seizures during which they both mumbled something about the "stars falling in lines"; and, in what promises to be a major subplot, Julia invites Barbie to stay with her (since the few motel rooms are all booked) -- unaware that it was her husband whom he buried in the woods. (She thinks he is out of town, having an affair.) As an aside, when Angie accuses Junior of having "totally lost it" and "gone crazy" after locking her in the storm cellar, his parting words to her as he leaves her are that he is not crazy, that he is in fact the only one who "really knows" what is going on regarding the dome, and that she will "thank him" when it is over. Although we register these as the ravings of a deluded psychopath, I am guessing that his words will turn out to be true. (If not, he is likely to meet an early demise.)
Needless to say, the existence of the dome leads to some serious questions. How will the townspeople get water? (I don't think it can rain inside the dome.) Food? Other necessary resources? What happens if there is a fire (since all the fireman are out of town at a parade)? What about medical emergencies that the local hospital cannot handle? And although both Mr. King and the show's creators have noted that the "dome" is something of a metaphor for the "dome" that all of us live under (i.e., the earth's precious and precarious atmosphere), there are two specific -- and critical -- questions that even the creators of the show have not (yet) hinted at: since the town is "encased," (i) where are all of the pollutants (and, for that matter, garbage) going to go (after all, it's going to start to smell funky after a while), and (ii) even given the existence of some forested area, what happens if the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide change, and breathable air starts getting depleted?
So many questions, but only 13 episodes!
Seriously, though, the pilot was handled very nicely, with a good balance of plot development, character development, intrigue, and subplot creation. The direction is not masterly, but quite a bit better than utilitarian. The set and scenic design, and special effects, are very believable. And the acting, though inconsistent, is somewhat better than average for this genre. (It is nice to see the always-reliable and fun-to-watch Jeff Fahey as the central character of the sheriff.)
According to the ratings, the pilot episode of Under the Dome had an audience of over 13 million, a rare feat for a brand-new summer-season show. And that number may well rise: it is estimated that a large number of probable viewers were watching the NHL championship and recorded Under the Dome for later viewing, but will watch coming episodes when they air.
I do not generally watch network television (i.e., CBS, NBC, ABC et al), preferring some of the shows on basic cable. However, I am hopeful that Under the Dome can sustain itself for the entire season, as it is a very worthwhile entry into the summer series category, and offers something of a broader storyline than most series', and thus greater possibilities for the breadth and depth of the premise and its characters.