‘Under the Dome’ pilot offers peek at thrills

Author Stephen King reads from his latest book
Author Stephen King reads from his latest book "Ur".

 Although we're accustomed to broadcast networks using the summer as a dumping ground for programs they have lost faith in, that's not always the case. Under the Dome (10 p.m. Monday, CBS) was commissioned specifically for a summer airing. Based on a Stephen King novel, this is a limited-run series (13 episodes) that, in success, could possibly return next summer. (Producers have sketched out a story beyond the first season.)

It's also not the first time CBS has tried a story based on Kings' work in the summer. In 1991 the network aired a seven-episode series, Golden Years.

Under the Dome is vintage Stephen King: A large cast of characters grappling with a seemingly supernatural event when a dome descends on their town, Chester's Mill, Maine.

Monday's premiere offers an effective set-up to the series, introducing more than a dozen characters and slowly peeling away how they are all related. The pilot, written by Brian K. Vaughn (Lost) and directed by Niels Arden Oplev (the original, 2009 Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), is filled with an array of creative dome encounters — a cow gets cut in half by the dome, an airplane smashes into the dome, etc. — but in the early going viewers learn little about the dome itself. Where did it come from? Can you dig under it? Presumably these are the questions Under the Dome will spend the next 13 weeks addressing.

The dome descends just after Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike Vogel, Pan Am, Bates Motel) finishes burying a body in the woods. He gets spooked driving down a road when he passes a sheriff (Jeff Fahey, Lost) and deputy (Natalie Martinez) driving in the opposite direction. Barbie accidently drives off the road onto a farm where he witnesses the dome descend before saving a kid (Colin Ford) from falling airplane parts.

Meanwhile, that kid's sister, Angie (Britt Robertson), is having sex with her insecure boyfriend, Junior (Alexander Koch), who turns into a domestic-violence perpetrator, which happens kind of a lot in King's stories.

Junior is the son of city councilman James "Big Jim" Rennie (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad), who seems to know something about extra propane shipments the town received just before the arrival of the dome, shipments that caught the eye of a nosey neighbor, prompting her to call local newspaper editor Julia (Rachelle Lefevre, Twilight) even as the neighbor admits, "I get my news online, sweetheart, like everybody else."

That seems like a lot of characters already, but it's really just the start. There are also characters at the local community radio station and a couple passing through town while taking their daughter to camp.

The premiere hints at some sort of conspiracy by the town fathers, but also an affliction that causes seizures in young people left under the dome. And at least one major character may be taken out by the dome pretty early on.

With Stephen King stories, it's all about character development and plot execution. So far, the Under the Dome characters are just sketches and the plot is just getting started. It remains to be seen if either will merit watching for a full season, but the pilot does exactly what it should: It intrigues and makes the case for viewers to come back next week for more.