Once upon a time there were TV shows. These shows aired in 30- or 60-minute blocks of time, once a week, roughly twenty-six times a year between early September and mid-May. They took a few weeks off here and there, for major holidays, and were occasionally pre-empted for special events and other programming. Each week’s show was a standalone episode, though on rare occasions you would get a two-part episode. The problem was presented, the crisis ensued, and all was wrapped up within the span of the time slot. With few exceptions, characters did not change a whole lot over the course of a program’s lifetime–Barbara Eden’s Jeannie was about the same at the end as she was at the beginning, and so was Tony Nelson, Major Healy, and Dr. Bellows. Yes, there were some shows that broke this rule (M*A*S*H was one that did it quite well, in my opinion), but they were the exceptions.
For character development, for real storytelling, we got the miniseries. The first mini-series I remember was Roots
, in 1977. Roots
was huge. It was an event. It ran for eight nights straight on ABC, 12 hours of programming time, and had everyone talking about it. While there had been miniseries before, Roots
ushered in the Golden Age of the Miniseries: Holocaust
(1978). The Winds of War
(1983, not related at all to ‘V’ for Vendetta
; this was more like an expanded version of The Twilight Zone
episode, To Serve Man
). The miniseries was the perfect way to bring some stories to life that were too big for both regular TV and the movies. As an added bonus, they often attracted talented people who were usually only seen on TV appearing as guests on talk or variety shows.
When I saw that Stephen King’s Under The Dome was getting the miniseries treatment, I was excited—and a little peeved.* Like those big stories cited above, the miniseries format seemed perfect for Under The Dome. King’s book is full of interesting characters doing interesting (and typically despicable) things to each other, too dense to be easily adapted to a 2 or 2-1/2 hour movie, not without having to cut the character list way down. Could it be done? Sure, Hollywood can do just about anything. Should it be done? In my view, too much would be lost. But a miniseries? Yes, thank you.
And now that I’ve seen five—or maybe it’s six—episodes, I’m not so thrilled. In fact, I’m quite disappointed. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the kind of programming that exists on HBO or Showtime, where you get things like The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. You just can’t get that sort of grit on the broadcast networks. Yet you can get quality, and Under The Dome, despite King’s name as executive producer, and despite being backed by the television arm of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, is falling short.
This is not me complaining about how much it differs from the book, though I do that for the benefit of my wife, who scoffs at certain things that have happened (like Stephen King needs me to defend him). No, this is about the quality of the show. I expected better. The minseries format should allow for the story to develop at the right pace, and it’s the pacing that feels all out of whack to me. The problem is that each episode should have been longer, either 1-1/2 or 2 hours long, like the miniseries in the days of yore. Under The Dome is only an hour, and on network TV, one hour means about 42 minutes of actual programming. The result is that each episode feels rushed, cramped like Drusilla’s foot in Cinderella’s glass slipper. Add to that the fact we’re keeping track of so many characters (Barbie, Julia, Big Jim, Junior, Phil, Linda, Scarecrow Joe), we end up jumping so much that we don’t get enough of any one of them. It’s ironic that the miniseries could stand a trimming down of the character list, given that one of the strengths of the format should have been the ability to follow more characters.
Still, as unhappy as I’ve been with the production, I’ve continued watching. Part of the interest has been in seeing how it’s going to end–I want to know. I figured I could put up with less than stellar acting, and with occasional, head-scratching bits of logic. Let’s see how it ends. And then came the unexpected news, just the other day: it’s not ending. Under The Dome has been renewed for a second season. Wait, what? How do you renew a mini-series? Oh, I guess it’s not a mini-series after all, and never WAS a mini-series. It feels like a ripoff, like a bait-and-switch at a smarmy car dealer. Part of the appeal of the minseries is that you’re going to get a full story, spread out over time, but that it’s going to have a conclusion. Like the best books, a miniseries should end with us wanting it to go on, though we know it can’t. Now that I’ve learned that Under The Dome has no end, I’m actually less compelled to keep watching.
Have you been watching Under The Dome? What do you think? Have a great weekend.
*I’ll perhaps explain this another time.