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Mysterious dome splits small town in scary series born from Stephen King novel

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When it comes to small-town American living, there is no place like "dome."

And this, by the way, is not a good thing, as the residents of the fictional, Stephen King-imagined community of Chester's Mill find out in the première of the spooky summer series Under the Dome, which airs Monday, June 24, at 9 p.m. on CBS and Global.

Chester's Mill is a sleepy, bucolic little hamlet where cows and townsfolk lazily coexist, and day-to-day life is so mundane that the sheriff spends his afternoons napping in a chronically unoccupied jail cell.

But there's darkness here, too, beneath the surface and out at the fringes -- in the series' opening scenes, a man is seen deep in the woods, digging an empty grave and dumping a body; meanwhile, the town newspaper's new editor receives a tip about someone hoarding massive amounts of propane for what might be nefarious purposes.

Those could become pretty big stories in this pretty little town, if not for the really big event that trumps everything else: the sudden arrival of an invisible wall/force field/energy field/dome that cuts Chester's Mill off from the outside world.

And by sudden, I mean immediate -- one moment everything's fine; the next, an invisible curtain slams into the soil with such force that buildings are bisected, highways and power lines are severed, and one unlucky bovine is cut cleanly and completely in half.

The lowering of the unseen curtain also creates an immediate division in the lives of Chester's Mills' residents -- for those caught inside, it's immediate isolation; for those outside, it's confusion, fear, and a sense of national crisis.

And for those unfortunate or unwise enough to be trying to get from one side to the other in the moments after the dome arrives, the results are catastrophic -- a single-engine aircraft bursts into flames as it flattens itself against the invisible barrier, and an in-bound transport truck filled with groceries is smashed to pieces when it goes head-on into the impenetrable nothingness.

The special effects used to demonstrate the barrier's strength are modest but emphatically effective. The series' producers seem to take particular delight in showing how many ways the curtain-down crisis can sever an arm or a leg.

What's most impressive about the premiere of Under the Dome, however, is the efficient, no-nonsense manner in which its writer, Brian K. Vaughn (who adapted the like-titled novel by Stephen King), sets up several intriguing storylines in the first few minutes and then propels them rapidly in new directions once the town is isolated from the outside world.

The guy seen burying the body turns out to be Dale Barbara (Mike Vogel), a stranger with criminal connections whose near-miss with a highway-wandering cow sends his car spinning into a pasture and delays his getaway just long enough for him to be trapped inside the dome. In a town where everyone recognizes -- and many immediately suspect -- an outsider, his secret is going to be hard to keep.

Shady town councillor (and local car dealer) "Big Jim" Rennie (Breaking Bad's Dean Norris) suddenly finds himself in a very powerful position, because the mayor and the rest of the council have ventured briefly out of town to take part in a big game-day parade and are now, literally, on the outside looking in.

The aforementioned sleepy sheriff (Lost's Jeff Fahey) finds that being too close to the curtain messes with his pacemaker, and Deputy Linda (Natalie Martinez) is shocked to learn that her firefighter husband, who was also at the parade, is stuck on the outside.

Julia Shumway (Montreal-born Rachelle Lefevre), the newly installed editor of The Independent, thinks her doctor husband is on call at the hospital, but when she helps to deliver an injured local to the ER, she's informed that he hasn't worked a weekend shift in weeks. Where he is -- inside the dome, or outside? -- is a mystery to her and becomes an important plot-point revelation for viewers.

The attention-grabbing premiere of this 13-episode series deals only with the initial shock of the dome's descent; such logistical challenges as the inevitable shortages of food, water, fuel and other staples of civilized living will inevitably have to be dealt with as the entangled mass of storylines moves forward.

For now, at least, what Under the Dome is offering is a very promising start -- one of those rare instances of legitimate first-run "appointment" scripted programming during the usually slow summer months, and the makings, one hopes, for one of the best King adaptations TV has received in quite some time.

Dome, sweet dome, indeed.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2013 C9

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