Whatever you do, do not call "Under the Dome" a miniseries.
"It is a 13-part series that merges a really incredible incident, character, and mystery. This is just the beginning," executive producer Neal Baer ("Law & Order: SVU," "ER") promised a handful of journalists who were lucky enough to see the pilot episode Thursday morning of the new CBS summer show, based on Stephen King's best-selling 2009 novel, that starts June 24. "I just heard that 'SVU' just got picked up for its 15th season, and 'ER' was on for 15 years, so I hope it's a trend."
Get a first look of the "Under the Dome" poster art:
The action of the book, about a small town that finds itself suddenly trapped under a giant dome, takes place in the span of a week. The team behind the TV adaptation extended the timeline and tweaked several plot points, including the ending. Executive producer/pilot writer Brian K. Vaughan explained, "When we first started talking with Stephen, he said that when he first came up with the idea, [he] envisioned a town potentially being trapped for years, and that's something [we] could do that he couldn't and that might necessitate a different ending. We pitched Stephen a far-out big-swing idea if we are lucky enough for this to go several years."
And was the master of the macabre supportive of the new ending or ready to go full Annie Wilkes? "He was excited by it. He was so generous to say, 'I wish I'd thought of that. That's killer.' He's been so supportive and given us plenty of creative freedom," Vaughan told us. "He knows the book is his own thing and that it would be boring to just translate the book exactly to the screen. [But the] themes and heart of the book are in it. He said, 'To quote Elvis, this is your baby. You rock it now.' And I think he likes the way we've been rocking it."
Baer added, "We're on Episode 10 now; we've already passed where the book goes, and we're just beginning to explore all the ramifications of being caught under the dome."
That's not to say that King's touch isn't all over the series, from the quirky characters and spot-on snapshot of small-town politics and mind-sets to the gross-out moments, like a cow being dissected down the middle when it finds itself in the wrong part of the pasture when the dome appears. Fans will also be excited to hear that King might increase his involvement should the show get picked up. Vaughan disclosed a discussion they had after King viewed a few episodes. "He said, 'If this comes back for a second season, can I write one for it?' You can write 13 if you want to. We should be so lucky."
And never fear, fans of the project's other legendary Steve. Steven Spielberg's brand is also represented. "I feel like I was raised by two men — Steven Spielberg [also an executive producer] and Stephen King — so it is totally surreal to get to work with both of them," Vaughan gushed. "Spielberg sees the best in humanity and King has always seen the worst. But they both love people so much and love throwing them in extraordinary situations and seeing what happens."
Baer says the Oscar-winning director's style is best represented in the character of Joe. "Joe is the everyday kid we can relate to and who has that Spielberg wonderment. He's the eyes and is pretty wonky about math, so he is going to figure out things that answer a lot of questions."
Watch a preview clip:
NEXT: What's "Dome" got to do with "Twin Peaks" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"?
Here are some other revelations from the post-peek Q&A:
- The show gives Baer Agent Dale Cooper déjà vu. "Yesterday we were looking at Episode 3 in playback, and I had this sense that this is a new 'Twin Peaks' because everyone was stuck in that little place; you really got into the characters and mysteries were unfolding. This is very different from that show, but it takes that element and the roots of CBS with 'Twilight Zone' and puts it together in a fresh way."
One big difference? They won't make you wait multiple seasons for all the answers. For instance, before the first installment concludes, viewers will know why no one just digs under the walls, why teens are reduced to seizing gibberish-spouting heaps near the force field, and why Mike Vogel buried a body in the opening sequence. Vaughan said, "I think we have done a pretty good job not stringing everyone along. We made a conscious decision to present a mystery and solve it before we start introducing new ones — although there will be some ultimate mysteries that will hang for longer. But we know the answers, and we will learn a great deal about the dome by the end of the season. Having worked on 'Lost' and having realized that if your show is about one central mystery, people need to care about the characters, I'm not too concerned that people will tune out if they're not getting the biggest answer."
- So far, each episode is equivalent to one day in captivity, and there will not be much interaction with the outside world. "It is not postapocalyptic. It is the first day after this life-altering tragedy, and we don't want to leave these people for a moment," Vaughan explained. "We want to see each step gradually of how is society going to change as Chester's Mill is cut off from the rest of the United States. How many of us would continue to show up for our job if we were no longer getting paid? What does it matter if you have $100,000 in the bank? I like that we're trapped in here with these characters so our POV for the most part will remain inside. Chester's Mill has a farming community. Maybe people considered a lesser part of Chester's Mill are now vitally important. We will see a lot of reversals happen."
Baer added, "Can you imagine if you were trapped under a dome? Who would you want to be with? Who would you miss most? What would happen if you weren't able to have your electronic gadgets or other basic elements that we take for granted in our everyday lives? Some elements of everyday life can continue ... for a while. Can you have a democracy in place when you are running out of resources? We might run out of water, medicine. Who gets what? How is it going to be divided? Who is going to make the decisions? It is a parable for our times."
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- There are characters lifted straight from the pages, new characters (like an L.A. lesbian couple who get stuck after stopping for gas on their way to deliver their problem child to disciplinary camp), and some composite characters. And they aren't all always as they seem. Baer said, "They are complicated. People you think are bad may not be so bad, and the ones you think are good may not be so good, and that is what King has always done so well. Don't believe everything you see at the beginning," And although both dodged the question, we left with the feeling that some may even know more about the clear cage than they are letting on.
- No one should think they have job security, either. "The great thing about having a town with a couple thousand people in it is that we have a deep bench," Vaughan admitted. "We have a central cast, but they know none of them are safe because we can easily bring in a new Chester's Miller to fill their place. In a Stephen King show, it's not a spoiler to say there will be death." Baer mentioned that there's a "heaven board" in the writer's room with at least one main character's headshot already occupying it.
- The series will retain some of the book's very dark subject matter. "They're in trouble, big trouble," Baer warned. "Human nature rears its beautiful and ugly head in the course of the season. People do things they probably wouldn't have done if they weren't under such pressure, and they do things they may not have thought they were capable of in positive ways." The show was conceived originally for cable, and maintaining that edge was Vaughan's main concern when CBS bought it. "It is a Stephen King story. It is dark, edgy, adult, and [I wondered] can we still do that [on network TV]? But they wanted to do something different, and the script changed so little after coming to CBS. We're not going to cede the summer to cable. We're going to challenge them."
- The pilot is filled with special effects, from the aforementioned moo-tilation to body parts falling from the sky and delivery trucks crumpling on impact. But Baer swears that just because the trap is in place, the digitally added delights are not done. "Not to give too much away, but just imagine if you could skateboard on the dome. It's a great surface. There's a big fire, and that's not a good thing when you are trapped." Vaughan continued, "Jack Bender, who directed the second episode, had the same concern. We can't go from 60 to 0 and have a big explosive pilot that just becomes a nighttime soap. The second episode is almost bigger. It's explosive. Quite literally."
- Thanks to the involvement of the director of the Swedish version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Niels Arden Oplev, it is just another example of Scandi-noir style influencing American television. "He knows character and has a real visual sense to make a world under this dome," Baer said. "He's brooding and very dark. We were craving the mythology with the darkness [but also] the hope. I don't know that the Scandinavians bring the hope so much. But Steven Spielberg does. So we have that as well. So it is not like Bergman slit your wrists after you see the episode."
"Under the Dome" premieres June 24 at 10 PM on CBS.