As Under the Dome settles into its weekly routine, it's becoming very clear exactly where the show's ambitions lie: we have here a fun, summery mystery/thriller that would occasionally like to indulge in the odd bit of social commentary, but is far more comfortable hooking viewers in with its pulpy environment and high concept suspense. I'm on board with that 100%, but even the summeriest of summer shows needs to be anchored by an engaging cast of characters. That's where tonight's episode -- much like the previous two -- falls short: the action keeps barreling forward, but I still don't have anyone in the show's sprawling ensemble to relate to and root for.
The episode's titular "Manhunt" refers to renegade deputy Paul Randolph, who is now on the run after he accidentally killed another officer last week while shooting at the dome in a paranoid tantrum. Randolph theorizes that it wasn't his pointless, violent fit that killed his brother-in-law enforcement, but rather a deliberate act of malevolence on the godlike dome's part. This idea that the dome is a sinister omnipotent force seems to be shared by village sociopath Junior, who is still laboring under the delusion that ladies swoon when you lock them in an underground cell for days at a time and then bring them eggs.
Randolph escapes by wheezing a bit and then beating up his jailer, Officer Linda Esquivel, leading Big Jim to organize an old-fashioned posse in his capacity as the city's sole remaining councilman. He enlists the help of terrible-at-pretending-not-to-be-a-bounty-hunter Barbie and leads a foursome of citizen justice-seekers into the woods.
Randolph gets the drop on them, however, first injuring one of the civilians by shooting him in the leg, then later catching Jim and Barbie with their guns down. Fortunately, Officer Linda is on hand to redeem herself, fatally shooting Randolph in the back. Her valor earns her the title of sheriff, in as much as it's Councilman Jim's to bestow.
One thing I like quite a bit: I'm totally on board with the show's small town Lord of the Flies conceit, in which the people stuck with each other are more of a threat than their actual circumstances. The stakes feel elevated and genuine, then, when Randolph makes the deliberate choice to point his gun at people and shoot them.
We Need to Go Deeper
The episode's B and C plots, unfortunately, are honestly pretty bad. Buoyed by Angie's suggestion that escaping the dome might help her love him again, Junior descends into an abandoned cement factory tunnel system. He meets Julia while he's down there, and out of nowhere announces that he doesn't know how to get back and that maybe the tunnel will collapse. They resolve this issue by lighting a match, following the airflow indicated by the flame, and not being in that much danger to begin with.
A few things about this: one, Angie had established earlier that they'd been through those tunnels plenty of times; getting lost makes no sense. Two, dropping the show's least sympathetic character with one of its least developed into low-stakes peril doth not compelling television make. And three, this plot development never needed to be suspenseful anyways. There's already a giant mystery dome covering the town; what we need now is meaningful humanization of these characters, not an onslaught of droning cellos and tremolo violins at every slightest incident.Mare Winningham Goes Under the Dome >>>
The Kids Aren't Alright
When I say that I want more character development, however, I'm definitely not asking for anything like the Disney Channel drama of Joe and Norrie. With Joe's house deserted and powered by a generator, his friend Ben invites a few dozen people over for a house party -- the teenage stereotypes range from girls who love texting to a mean jock who is very rude, and that's everybody. When his generator goes out and the party disbands, Norrie's mother Carolyn arrives just in time to see them suffer matching seizures ... aww. Once again, they relay the otherworldly message that "pink stars are falling."
The seizures themselves are as admirably creepy as they were in the last two episodes, but everything leading up to it is problematic. This show has a definite young people dialog problem, and I'm not sure if the writers themselves are tone deaf to that particular demographic uniquely, or if the young actors are simply less adept at making lemonade out of lemony writing than their adult counterparts. Either way, the stilted, awkwardly enunciated saga of Joe and his friends is easily the most annoying component of the series so far.
While that all sounds harsh, I don't think Under the Dome is suffering from any problems that it can't overcome with time. I'd like very much to care more about these characters, and that will require a little less surface-level exposition, a little more nuance and a lot less manufactured tension eating up these episodes' run times.
I'd also like to be surprised by a character at some point: while gestures have been made toward Barbie's antihero backstory and the town's seedy history, the lines between the good and the bad have been pretty clearly drawn, largely according to the actors' relative cuteness, with Junior's unmanly prettiness being the only exception I can think of. That's not enough to command an audience's sympathies, and I hope the showrunners know that.
To paraphrase Barbie and Big Jim's exchange in the woods: I'm on your team, Under the Dome. Please don't shatter my pelvis.