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Stephen King kills off beloved series regulars in sci-fi drama 'Under the Dome'

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WILMINGTON, N.C. - Writing for television doesn't scare Stephen King.

The best-selling author has written the first episode of the second season of "Under the Dome," which begins Monday on CBS and Global.

The sci-fi drama, a ratings success last summer, is based on King's novel of the same name. It's about the residents of a small New England town named Chester's Mill cut off from the rest of the world by a transparent, indestructible dome. Mike Vogel, Dean Norris and Montreal native Rachelle Lefevre star.

King, who is also a producer on the series, told a gathering of international press on the set that he's watching a lot more television these days. Shows such as "True Detective," "The Killing" and "Orange is the New Black," he feels, are tilting television toward what he sees as a more novelistic approach.

The 66-year-old author used to read during his evenings off, but King says more and more he spends nights catching up on a favourite show. "I have as much of a tendency to binge watch as anyone else."

He singles out HBO's "True Detective," starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, as a show that has "changed the whole landscape of what TV does."

King likes these new shows where none of the characters are safe and anybody can go at any time. It was in that spirit he wrote this first new episode of "Under the Dome." King says he "jumped at the chance to kill off a couple of loved series regulars."

That kind of peril is lacking in traditional TV dramas such as the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises, he feels. "Those shows are unrealistic in the sense that, every week, there's a new case and it's all wrapped up at the end."

King sees FX's "The Shield" as an early game changer. "It was a successful show that had a continuing storyline," he says. Plus "the main character on 'The Shield' was not a nice person. He was a bad guy."

TV dramas have become more novelistic, says King, a trend that harkens back to the heyday of the miniseries. King was part of that scene in 1991 as writer/director of "Stephen King's Golden Years," which, like "Under The Dome," was a CBS summer series. It only lasted one season. "I don't know if I did a bad job or was ahead of my time," says King.

He tried again with "Kingdom Hospital," which aired the spring and summer of 2004 on ABC. The spooky hospital drama — triggered, in part, by King's own medical trauma after being hit by a car in 1999 — was an adaptation of a Danish miniseries.

King feels he was ahead of the cable curve with that series, especially after watching and admiring a more recent Danish-inspired effort, "The Killing."

He says he was "just bowled over" by the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" and likes "House of Cards," although he feels the first season was better than season 2.

Two foreign favourites are "The Return," a French drama he calls "an amazing piece of work," and "The Fall," a British drama starring Gillian Anderson.

He cheers on any series that adopts a novelistic approach. Even a network drama like "The Blacklist," where you can see characters develop, "has a novelistic tinge to it," says King.

"The Walking Dead" he sees as a revolutionary series. He's astounded that a small cable network like AMC can beat the broadcast networks on Sunday nights.

The Master of Horror gets why all those bloody zombies are a big draw. "I call it 'R-rated television,'" he says of more explicit cable fare. He sees CBS's "Under The Dome" more as "PG-13 television."

CBS, ABC and the other broadcasters "come into your home uninvited," he says, so they have to put limits on language and violence. King is fine with having to throw chills into viewers within the restrictions of network standards and practices. "It forces you into creative ways of telling the story that fits into the PG-13 parameters and I think that's kind of an exciting thing," he says. "I like the discipline of it."

It is a wonder King has time to watch any TV. Along with a second season of "Under The Dome" he has two new books coming out: the just released hard-boiled detective novel "Mr. Mercedes" and a November release titled "Revival." He feels the latter will remind fans of "Pet Sematary."

"It's a dark, scary book."

King was asked about deeper meanings in his work and he said sneaking social commentary and political agendas into works of supernatural fiction is a trick that dates back to "The Twilight Zone."

He admits that one bossy "Under The Dome" character bears a certain resemblance to a Russian leader in the news. "Big Jim Rennie (played by Norris) seems more and more like Vladimir Putin all the time," says King.

A member of the foreign press asks King what scares Americans these days. "Americans are afraid of everything," he says.

And what frightens him?

"Alzheimer's," he says without hesitation. "My brain is my main tool and I don't want to lose it if I can."

King, who has written more than 50 novels and short story collections, says he's trying to slow down a little as an author.

"It's harder than it used to be," he says of the book business. "I don't think I have as much to say as I used to, so I write less. It's still what I'm good at and what I like to do and it still makes me happy."

———

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont. While in Willmington, N.C., he was a guest of Global Television.

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