One of the most anticipated shows of the summer, Under the Dome, starts Monday on CBS. It's about a tiny New England town that's suddenly and mysteriously sealed off by an impenetrable dome.
The series is the first on-screen collaboration between two of the biggest Steves in popular culture — Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.
"The Steven Squared, we call it," cracks Neal Baer, an executive producer of the show.
In the TV show, as in the King novel it's based on, that forbidding dome crashes down out of nowhere. At first, people think there's been an earthquake or natural disaster. Gradually they realize they're completely cut off. No phones, Internet or television.
Anyone attempting to leave or enter the town smashes into invisible barriers. Families are separated. Tourists are literally trapped. The military swarms in, trying to intervene, but the town's citizens are stuck — with each other.
That turns the little town of Chester's Mill into a societal Petri dish, Baer points out.
"How are they going to get along? How's the government going to work? Who's going to be in charge?"
Such questions fascinate both Spielberg and King, even though the two men seem so very different in their outlook.
"Stephen King is someone who has the ability to see the worst in humanity," says writer Brian K. Vaughan, contrasting that pessimism with Spielberg's glowing idealism. "They're kind of polar opposites. But there's a little bit of overlap in the Venn diagram, because they're both such aggressive humanists."
Under the Dome explores a number of pressing topical issues: climate change, the collapse of small American towns, how to deal with dwindling resources.
"It was really written from a place of anger," Baer observes. "I think King was angry about the direction the country was taking, and how we were treating each other, and how we were treating the planet. Yet it never comes off as a screed."
Instead, it's almost a meditation on how quickly a society can dissolve. Annalee Newitz, who edits the science fiction website io9, says the notion of a town sequestered under a dome is not exactly original.
"You could even claim it goes back to No Exit, where people are trapped in hell together," she says. Among the pop-culture Petri dishes since Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play, Newitz points to films and TV shows as various as the depressing German movie Die Wand (2012), the Simpsons movie that put Springfield under a dome (2007), and an old Twilight Zone episode from 1960 about a suburb that lapses into mob rule after locals become convinced aliens have sealed it off.
"And so the dome becomes the magnifying glass we use to look into these terrifying examples of human relationships," Newitz wryly observes.
Newitz was impressed by Under the Dome's television adaptation — or at least by the first episode, which was all critics were able to see in advance. Especially by the special-effects bits, as when one poor cow, standing exactly in the wrong place when the dome slams down, gets perfectly bisected.
"No cows were injured! This was not a real cow," Baer hastens to explain.
"It's a woodchuck in the book," Vaughan adds. "That was one of my first tentative changes, and I asked Stephen King if it would be OK. I thought an adorable woodchuck getting split in half ... we'd lose our audience."
Vaughan and Baer expect Under the Dome to last well past one season. In fact, they frankly relish the idea of trapping the citizens of Chester's Mill under the dome for years.
"Oh, my God, what are we going to do when Chester's Mill runs out of coffee?" Vaughan wonders. "That is really when the true horror begins."
Of all the horror Stephen King has unleashed — homicidal cars, killer clowns, towns seething with vampires — a world without coffee might be his most terrifying yet.
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