For whatever reason — one that I hope scientists at an Ivy League university are studying in a basement lab — Americans do not watch scripted television on the broadcast networks during the summer. They’re happy to watch TNT (Rizzoli & Isles among others) or USA (Suits among others) or AMC (The Walking Dead among others). But when I tell you that Fox’s Melrose Place is the most recent real network hit that launched during the summer and that was in 1992, I hope you are as surprised as I was.
In other words, CBS’s Under the Dome is fighting long odds. But if the show is a success, it would be a yearly summer staple on the network.
The pilot of the 13-episode series premiered Monday night. It’s based on Stephen King’s 2009 novel of the same name, and produced by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Television. King’s novel was sprawling — more than 1,000 pages — but the first episode sets up a neatly manageable premise: What will happen to the town of Chester’s Mill when suddenly a dome forms around it?
The show has an ensemble cast led by Mike Vogel as a criminal named Barbie; Rachelle LeFevre as the town’s newspaper editor, Julia; and Dean Norris as the town leader, Big Jim Rennie. There are a number of other characters also freaking out because they’re under a dome (like crazy Junior played by Alexander Koch; Angie, who is being terrorized by Junior, played by Britt Robertson; and Natalie Martinez as a young cop).
And there’s one person you think is going to be a lead, but —
I talked with the two main executive producers Brian K. Vaughan (who has been working on Under the Dome since it was a project for Showtime) and Neal Baer (formerly of ER and Law & Order: SVU) about where the show is going. There are spoilers about the pilot below.
You killed Jeff Fahey.
Neal Baer: You’ll have to come into our office and see our heaven board. But we’ll have to send you to heaven for seeing it.
But I like Jeff Fahey! Tell me about casting him as the sheriff, and what you wanted out of his death being the ending of the pilot.
NB: We wanted somebody who it would be a surprise that he died in the pilot. We wanted it to be a recognizable, great actor. We thought it was really interesting that a character you really love comes to a sad end. Because we think there are many characters you will love on the show.
Brian K. Vaughan: We think that you’ll love them more knowing that they could go away at any second. Jeff Fahey becomes the sacrificial lamb. His death supercharges the rest of the show, because I think it reminds you that no one is safe. A lot of people who’ve seen the pilot, he’s their favorite character.
He’s got a pacemaker, but touches the dome anyway.
BV: Curiosity killed the cat and the sheriff. Wouldn’t you want to touch it? You’re a journalist.
I would. But electromagnetic things don’t seem to affect me — yet. What else do you both think people will be talking about after the premiere? What do you hope jumps out at people?
NB: Why Barbie killed Julia’s husband. Is he ever going to say anything about it? Why would he be staying in this woman’s house — is she safe? Who is this guy? What was he doing? Who was he talking to on the phone when he said, “I finished the job”?
BV: There are a lot of watercooler moments of spectacle: cows getting cut in half, and trucks smashing into things. But I agree with Neal that if the show is going to work, it’s because people care about who’s trapped under the dome and want to know more about them.
NB: How are they going to deal with this? Is there a possibility of getting out? What are the “pink stars”? We set up a lot of mystery.
BV: Also, who are we supposed to root for on the show? We definitely introduced Barbie in an unlikable way: He is digging a ditch for a body. He’s clearly not a great guy. Big Jim we introduce, and you think this guy is a lovable, competent town leader. But we’re going to bring out different sides of them. We knew we didn’t want people to watch the pilot and say, “Wow, how is this all going to end?” And then go to Wikipedia and just read how it ends. We’re doing different things.
It’s a big ensemble. Does the show have a lead?
NB: There are three: Mike Vogel, Rachelle LeFevre, Dean Norris.
BV: They are the core. And then there are really important electrons flying around.
I wonder whether the Junior/Angie storyline will be divisive. Having seen only the one episode, I wondered whether people might say, “I don’t like this one.” A claustrophobic narrative within a claustrophobic narrative. Tell me about the significance to the larger story.
BV: What if there’s a clue in that when Junior is down there and he says, “I’m the only one who really knows what’s happening here”? There’s a possibility that, what if he’s right? What if he’s not crazy?
How big are the Lord of the Flies elements going to be going forward?
NB: We’ll learn in the second episode whether the dome is permeable to water and things like that. So we’ll answer those sorts of science-y questions early on. We always have some mystery of dome mythology going in every episode. But if you’re trapped under the dome, you’re in a hothouse: Your secrets aren’t safe. It’s kind of like Sartre’s No Exit — other people are hell. That’s the other thrust of the series.
I know you’ve both said you’re deviating from the book. Are you deviating on things as big as: What is in the dome? Who knew about the dome? How will we get out of the dome?
BV: Yes. But always with Stephen King’s blessing. I think he’s been he’s so supportive of the plot because we’ve worked hard to stay true to the themes and the characters. The mythology is always really important, but it’s always in service to these characters.
NB: All of the elements of the format that are laid out in the book are certainly a part of the show. But characters have been composited; new characters have been added.
BV: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Angie dies in the first couple of pages in the novel.
NB: And she’s alive at the end of the first episode! She’s lasted one day!
You recently announced you’ve cast Natalie Zea as a character who was not in the book. She’ll come in later. Is she in the dome?
BK: She has to be. It’s our one solid rule that we don’t violate: Nobody gets in, nobody gets out this season. So if she’s introduced late, it means that she’d be in there since the first episode. You will have to wait and see.
Until which episode?
BK: She may in some way have already been in the first episode.
NB: Oh my goodness, Brian. That’s such an Easter egg.
Really? I need to figure that out. Obviously, there have been adaptations as long as there’s been television. But it seems to me that Game of Thrones is creating an interesting new dynamic with book readers versus non-book readers: Those who’ve read the books are watching a different show from those who haven’t. The show takes liberties, but it hits all of the huge narrative moments. It sounds like you’re doing a much looser adaptation than that, more of a True Blood-style one.
BV: I remember reading George R.R. Martin talking about how much his time as a television writer influenced when he started writing the Game of Thrones novels. Treating a chapter ending like a traditional act break in television. It’s almost like he was laying a perfect blueprint for a show that — at the time he started writing it — he never could imagine would be made. Stephen King, he loves film, and he loves television. But he’s first and foremost a great novelist. And Under the Dome is a great novel. Maybe because of the ways it’s a great novel it won’t translate to the screen exactly.
Brian, you worked on Lost, and a lot of people were disappointed in the way Lost ended. Does it offer a cautionary narrative?
BV: There is perhaps a very vocal minority that I think wanted maybe better — different — answers to the mythology. Honestly, I enjoyed the ending, because to me it was about the quality of the writing and how much I cared about these characters. It just feels like there’ve been a lot of shows that have come on after Lost that have said, “Here’s what we’re going to do differently from Lost, and here’s how we’re going to be better.” A lot of them have been canceled after four or five episodes. If anything, I’d say I’ve tried to take good examples of what I’ve learned from Lost as one of the very few genre shows that’s been able to find a huge audience.
Serialized dramas had a bit of a bounce this year: The Following, Revolution. There was a time a few years ago when viewers were too nervous to invest their time and every big mystery show was flopping.
NB: That’s why we’re glad that it’s 13. There’s a big difference when you’re committing to 13 episodes in a row over the summer. There aren’t 22 or 25.
Brian, you wrote the original pilot for Showtime. How did the transition to CBS — the network corporate sibling to Showtime — happen?
BV: I heard through DreamWorks that they had the rights to this. And it was a book I loved. So I came aboard pretty early. It was at Showtime for a long time. But I think after Homeland, this wasn’t the perfect fit. It was a Hail Mary when we heard that CBS might be interested. I think I stripped out the “fucks” from the script. I couldn’t imagine a cow getting cut in half was what the Tiffany network wanted to do. But Nina Tassler was really excited by it, and loved it. She said, “If we can find a great showrunner, let’s put this on the air.” That’s when Neal came in.
I want to hear about working with Steven and Stephen. Let’s start with Spielberg.
BV: He’s approved every bit of casting. He watches cuts. We’ve had several great meetings with him. When I first met him, I thought, “Oh, he’ll be such a joy to work with, because he’ll have all these thoughts about the effects.” But I think coming off Lincoln, he’s, like, “This is a story about how you start democracy from the ground up.” On the deep character stuff, he’s been really supportive and helpful.
NB: Stephen King went to the set for the first episode. That was great. He watches everything. He has his comments. Like, “You should have Natalie Martinez wear her hair down.” She’s absolutely beautiful, and she kind of has a bun for the first half of the season. So she progressed from a bun to a braid. It’s kind of an interesting point, though, because she always looks the same because she’s always in her cop uniform. He’s very attuned to the episodes.
BV: He’s been the ideal collaborator, because it hasn’t been, “Here’s what you guys got wrong about my book, here’s what you missed.” He’s embraced the new characters, the composites. He’s been so supportive.
NB: Tell Kate what he said about the dome.
BV: Scott Gold, our journalist from the L.A. Times, has been so great about making sure that everything we do is totally believable. In one of our earliest calls with Stephen King, we said, “We spoke with meteorologists, and we spoke with physicists.” We were rattling off all the facts about the dome and how it could work —
NB: All the work we’ve done to make sure that our explanations make scientific sense.
BV: There was a long pause. And Stephen said, “You guys know you can just make shit up, right?”
This interview was edited and condensed.