Stephen King's mammoth 2009 novel Under the Dome features two killer antagonists. One is, well, the dome itself; the other is "Big Jim" Rennie, a bully of a local politician who seizes the dome's sudden appearance as a chance to affirm his fiefdom. Too bad only the inanimate bad guy made the transition to the small screen.
Season two of CBS' prime-time Under the Dome adaptation kicks off tonight. It's a killer premise: A giant dome magically drops from the sky, covering the small town of Chester's Mill, Maine; cut off from society, possibly for good, the predictable anarchic wackiness ensues. (Not as wacky as The Simpsons Movie, but wacky enough.) On the page, this is propulsive, pulpy stuff. On TV, it's an immensely silly mess.
Verily, season one was rife with problems. The townspeople's collective intelligence makes the wayward roving humans that populate The Walking Dead seem like a backwoods Mensa gathering—they go long stretches seeming to have forgotten the GIANT DOME that has trapped them in town. One whole episode out of 13 centered on a secret fight club/rave venue in an abandoned cement factory, a puzzling creation absent from the book and quickly bounced from the show. Sheesh, isn't the GIANT DOME enough of an issue?
I'd accuse the writers of spinning their wheels, were it not clear that the wheels fell off long ago. Still, nothing galls me like the treatment of the show's human villain, Big Jim. In King's hands, he's is a detestable force from the start. You plow through 1,000-odd pages (yes, the book is mammoth even by King's standards) as much to see him get his comeuppance as to finally figure out what the heck is up with the dome. He's selfish and manipulative, a parochial political nightmare. There is no gray to be found.
Turn on the TV, though, and, well, "soft" isn't quite the right word. Big Jim is still the villain—he lies, not to mention kills—but the show takes odd sidelines to round off his edges, at times showing him to be a mournful husband, caring father, and even worthy town leader. To be fair, it also shows him to be the exact opposite of all those things, but that inconsistent characterization plagues the entire show, not just its antagonist: The show's nominal hero, Dale "Barbie" Barbara (ugh, those names) gets an unnecessarily darker backstory for balance. King's novel is great entertainment without aspiring to be one of our Great Books; I don't think the television version aspires for greatness, either, but if the goal is some ridiculous fun, why even try to muddy the characters' waters?
As such, Under the Dome's first season played out as a half-assed Big Jim origin story—a long, ridiculous, and unnecessary origin story—for a character ready-made for evil scheming. Was this a flubbed attempt at pandering to our insatiable thirst for "Difficult Men" TV, where good guys and bad guys alike are slathered in shades of grey? Was the softening of Big Jim part of the plan all along, or was it the byproduct of casting the great Dean Norris, then just wrapping things up over at Breaking Bad? True, in that case, he took the one-note meathead caricature of Hank Schrader and morphed him over five seasons into one of the show's only good and likable characters. But there's a difference between turning a flat character into a round one and turning an unabashed bad guy into a gradual, somewhat ambiguous one. Sometimes it's okay for bad to just be bad.
This is not to say that the source material here should be held sacred—Under the Dome specifically or books in general. (Uncle Stevie himself has already suggested that the novel's disappointing ending won't be regurgitated here, and I'm all for it.) But too much of the book's pulpy, trashy fun is being ruined by all these muddled motivations. Still, we press on: As season one wrapped, Big Jim is running the town, and Barbie is in a noose set for a public execution, with Big Jim playing the hangman. Suddenly, the pink stars appear (I don't have time to explain, and it probably won't make any sense), and the dome flashes to bright white—another creation for the show, but at least one that works onscreen. Will it be a distraction that leads to Barbie's escape? Will it trigger a short-lived epiphany for an evil-at-the-moment Big Jim? Will it lead to some other unforeseeable whackadoo happening? If there's one thing going for this show, it's that even as a book-reader, I don't have the slightest clue, but on the flip side, I don't think the show's creators do, either.