Under the Dome… and other apocalypses

PilotUnder the Dome is the latest in a seeming mobius strip of apocalypse stories being forced down our gullet by the entertainment industry. “But wait,” you say, “Under the Dome isn’t an apocalypse story. It’s only about one town.” This Stephen King-based saga, which debuted last month, centers on a small municipality that finds itself, inexplicably and without warning, under a dome. Like in The Simpsons Movie.

The first character we encounter is burying a body hastily wrapped in a sheet, so we get off to a pretty dark start. As day dawns, we start meeting, one by one, the important characters who inhabit the small town of Chester’s Mill: a couple of cops–a young, cute Latina and her older, more wizened partner; a waitress and her generously-tipping regular; a college-aged couple in the throes of passion (Check it. Murder and sex in the first two minutes.); a spunky red-haired reporter collecting a news tip from a salt-of-the-earth homeowner; a radio deejay and an engineer; and a teenage boy.

The body-burier (Mike Vogel) finds himself in a cow pasture when the ground starts to rumble and the massive yet invisible dome descends. The pivotal scene, even though we know it’s coming, is highly suspenseful seen through the eyes of these citizens. And it happens just minutes into the story, so they’re all we know.

Because the pilot restricts us to knowing only people inside Chester’s Mill, we’re living what could very well be the end of the world. They see other people on the outside of the sound-proof, electrified barrier, but the two sides can’t communicate with each other. As the audience, we’re as trapped as the residents, not knowing what’s happening outside or if other locales are affected.

So what makes an apocalypse story an apocalypse story? Theoretically the “end of the world” would mean all life on earth is terminated. That worked for Life After People, but it doesn’t leave many interesting characters for a drama. So basically, it’s the end of life as we know it. It probably requires that the population be reduced to a small fraction of what it once was, as in The Walking Dead, Battlestar Gallactica or RevolutionOften it involves the loss of modern technology — “modern” being relative to when the story takes place. Jericho was an apocalypse story of perhaps the most realistic kind — nuclear annihilation probably being more likely than a zombie outbreak — and it centered on one small town, just like Under the Dome. Actually those two shows remind me a lot of each other in tone and in terms of what happens in the pilot.

So can an apocalypse story be about the end of the world just as one group of people knows it? Or do we, as the audience, have to know that the disaster is more widespread? We don’t actually know that Chester’s Mill is the only town turned into a snow globe. We may never know, if we only have the POV of its residents to go on. Toward the end of the Jericho pilot, we learn that other American cities have been destroyed. It’s not until the end of Season 1 of The Walking Dead, in “TS-19,” that we get a sense that other countries have been destroyed by the virus. In movies like I Am Legend, we get some flashbacks to prove to us that the whole world descended as one.

The Under the Dome pilot only spans one day, so there’s no panic yet about — for example — running out of food. But the inevitable competition for resources that always accompanies the end of the world looms, assuming the dome is hanging around a while. There’s a diabetic character and two different medical emergencies, so we’re led to think about the necessity of medicine. Also, the firetrucks are on the wrong side of the barrier (something the writers waste no time getting to in episode 2). So we have plenty to anticipate falling apart.

Then there’s good old human nature to fear. People start freaking out in high pressure situations, and we already have hints of that with Junior (Alexander Koch), a guy who appears to be a murderer, and some town officials who just might have known what was about to happen. So this thing has all the elements that make an apocalypse story, whether or not the rest of the world just carries along with Royal Baby Watch like everything is cool.

In case you were wondering, I do like Under the Dome. I sound cynical, but it’s a fun ride.

On the eve of the Mayan non-event, io9’s Charlie Jane Anders hypothesized that pop culture was done with the apocalypse. I hoped she was right, but alas, we will probably never stop fixating on our own destruction. We’re just too narcissistic. It’s what separates us from the animals.

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