On the Set: Inside the New CBS Thriller Under the Dome
Natalie Martinez, Colin Ford, Jeff Fahey, Mike Vogel | Photo Credits: Michael Tackett/CBS
Chester's Mill: A nice place to visit. A terrible place to be trapped beneath an invisible force field.
Yet CBS is hoping for a captive audience when the network unveils its ambitious adaptation of Stephen King's novel about a quaint Maine town with a big problem. Not that the 13-week "TV event," as it's being hyped, is much of a risk. In addition to King's built-in appeal, Under the Dome — which was originally developed at Showtime — boasts a roster of heavy hitters behind the scenes, including Steven Spielberg's Amblin Television, executive producers Neal Baer (Law & Order: SVU) and Jack Bender (Lost), and comic-book writer Brian K. Vaughan, who penned the series and previously worked with Bender on ABC's mystery-island hit.
"I was taking some time off, trying to find something I really wanted to do, and Brian called me," Bender says. "He sent me the script, and it was the first thing I'd read in a long time that I really loved. I had a similar reaction when I saw J.J. Abrams's brilliant Lost pilot."
Viewers may feel some déjà vu, too. Although there are no smoke monsters or sideways timelines, Dome does focus on a group of survivors — anchored by drifter Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Bates Motel's Mike Vogel), journalist Julia Shumway (Twilight's Rachelle Lefevre), frisky candy striper Angie McAlister (Secret Circle's Britt Robertson) and local councilman/megalomaniac Big Jim Rennie (Breaking Bad's Dean Norris) — who are cut off from the rest of mankind after a violent, life-altering experience. In this case, it's not a plane crash but the sudden appearance of an almost undetectable bubble over the town. And like the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815, Baer says, the folks of Chester's Mill "come together...in the beginning."
After the initial shock, however, "it becomes one of those situations where life as you know it can no longer continue," Lefevre says. "Changes must be made, and a lot of those shifts are internal. Battle lines get drawn." And bad things begin to happen. Teens start having seizures and babbling about "pink stars falling," the local radio team (Jolene Purdy and Nicholas Strong) picks up signals of unknown origin, military forces fail to breach the barrier and medical supplies slowly start to dwindle. This is dire news for a diabetic (Samantha Mathis) who is traveling through town with her partner (Aisha Hinds) and their rebellious daughter (Mackenzie Lintz) when the mysterious dome drops.
If that weren't enough, there's a secret surrounding Big Jim's stockpile of propane, and he has a killer Alexander Haig-ish plan to take charge of the terrified town. "He's such a fun character to play, because while the dome is a tragedy for everybody else, for him it's an opportunity," Norris says. "He does whatever he can, and if murder happens, it happens. He's got no problem with that being an issue." And before you can say, "Holy fascist state!" tough decisions are made to save what's left of the group's resources and sanity. "What do you do when you run out of fuel, or there are no doctors because they're all trapped outside? How do you start over?" Baer asks. "When things run amok, you've got to do something."
The producers faced a similar situation when wrangling King's sprawling opus. At more than a thousand pages, it overflowed with characters and storylines that have been tweaked, cut or entirely re-imagined for a tighter TV focus. Without spoiling anything for those who have not read the book, one of the story's most gruesome deaths has been turned into an equally harrowing kidnapping subplot for Robertson's Angie; Lefevre's reporter has been aged down from her mid-fifties; Hinds's and Mathis's roles were added; and the book's conclusion underwent a total rewrite. "A lot of people apparently weren't all that happy with how [the book] ended," explains Bender. "Brian and Neal have a different ending in mind, and [it has] Stephen King's blessing." In fact, the producers say that the master of horror is "100 percent" on board with the alterations. "He's been completely supportive. He's a big fan, and he has great ideas," Baer says. "It's been wonderful."