CBS' 'Under the Dome' Brings New Life To Broadcast's Summer Season

The summers of the new millennium have brought us a number of extraordinarily popular reality competition programs that were so successful they became mainstays of their networks’ traditional season schedules, from CBS’ “Survivor” to Fox’s “American Idol” to ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” But if memory serves, we haven’t seen a scripted broadcast summer series that achieved the kind of success currently being enjoyed by CBS’ “Under the Dome” since the arrival of “Northern Exposure” on the same network way back in July 1990. (“Exposure” at first was an eight-episode limited series, but it was so popular that CBS brought it back the following spring, and then moved it into the official broadcast season for several years thereafter.)

The absence during the last two decades of buzz (not to mention ratings) for scripted fare during the summer months hasn’t stopped broadcasters from trying, and not simply by burning off shows that failed during the traditional season (such as the recently played-out “Do No Harm” on NBC and “Zero Hour” and “666 Park Avenue” on ABC). NBC and ABC have been especially aggressive this summer, with the former offering “Crossing Lines,” “Siberia” and “Camp” and the latter serving up summer staple “Rookie Blue” along with “Mistresses” and “Motive.” (Also, NBC extended into the early summer the runs of its two most breathlessly talked-about regular season dramas, “Revolution” and “Hannibal.”) Most of these shows are international co-productions of some kind and for whatever reasons aren’t particularly good – though “Rookie Blue” is a fine summer diversion with an enormously appealing cast. Another scripted effort will soon join their ranks: The CBS detective drama “Unforgettable,” which for its second season has been reassigned as a summer series.



So what is it about “Dome” that has made it the first success of its kind in over 20 years? It’s not a feel-good show, which was pretty much the most appealing thing about “Northern Exposure.” It’s not irresistible trash, the likes of which once sent millions of Americans to their local drive-ins in the summer months but is now largely confined to certain basic cable networks, like Syfy, which recently scored one of the big media success stories of this busy summer with the irresistible movie “Sharknado.” It isn’t even pure escapism, like TNT’s “Falling Skies” and MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” because even though there is a big mysterious “thing” at the center of the “Dome” story (the object in the title) so far the dome isn’t doing much more than bringing out the best and worst of the people trapped by it, many of whom have personal secrets or personality defects that were firmly in place before their collective struggle began.

Come to think of it, that last sentence makes “Dome” sound a lot like “Lost.” The unfortunate surviving passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 were similarly trapped through seemingly impossible-to-understand circumstances. “Lost” turned out to be a letdown, never satisfactorily explaining many of the mysterious plot points that deepened its central mystery over six seasons and plunked most of the characters into some ill-defined purgatory at the last. Fortunately, the shocking if overlong Stephen King novel on which “Under the Dome” is based isn’t compromised by such narrative infirmity. (There will be no spoilers here, though I will note that there is a terrible event in the novel that is so horrific I think it could turn off the television audience if “Dome” dares to go there. Then again, maybe it will pump the show’s numbers, if it happens.)

The biggest risk for “Dome” is that CBS could decide to continue it for one or more summer seasons and stretch the story in such a way that much of the audience would start to drift off, just as it did beginning with the second season of “Lost.” But look at it from the network’s point of view: Scripted successes of any kind on broadcast are so rare these days – especially if they don’t wholly revolve around detectives – that bringing one to a relatively fast conclusion is almost unthinkable. A happy compromise here might be for CBS to end the summer run of “Dome” on a cliff-hanger, then bring it back at midseason and let it play out by the end of May 2014, at which time it should end.

This isn’t such a strange idea. The pilot for “Under the Dome” was better than almost all of the pilots I have seen for the broadcasters’ new fall dramas, and subsequent episodes haven’t been half-bad. With the exception of the disturbing and off-putting plot ine in which the crazy guy who looks like the love child of Andy Samberg and Brandon Routh has been holding as his hostage the cute girl from “Life Unexpected,” the various conflicts the many characters on the “Dome” canvas are caught up in have made for a mindlessly entertaining summer diversion. I mean that in the nicest possible way. All broadcasters should be encouraged to learn from this show’s success and strive to come up with summer winners of their own.

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