Time was, as sure as the weather warmed in May, along would come a TV movie or miniseries based on a Stephen King novel. A King miniseries was usually a ratings success. Then network TV stopped doing mini-series and did fewer TV movies. Also, Stephen King's work became darker.
Under the Dome (CBS, Global 10 p.m.) represents the return of King's material to mainstream TV. And it's not a mini-series. It's a 13-episode summer season that, CBS hopes, will return next summer. One can argue from now 'til Christmas about what constitutes a "mini-series" as opposed to short-run season, and we could get all tangled up in the fact that cable series tend to have 10 to 13 episodes per season. None of that matters, really.
What's more interesting is Stephen King's work. When the original novel was reviewed by the Globe and Mail in 2009, writer Robert Wiersema made a case for acknowledging King as an important writer of our time. He suggested that 100 years from now, the work that would be read and studied would include a handful of King novels.
This is not a popular assertion. Stephen King is so prolific and his work so ubiquitous that it's tricky to assess his strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. His horror stories are well-known, but the rollicking good humour in his work is underestimated and his raw anger at arrogance and complacency – something that is part of his appeal to a mass audience – is either forgotten or ignored by critics looking for significant contemporary writers.
What Under the Dome – both the novel and the series – offers is King at his angry, trenchant best. There's a core premise, anchored in sci-fi by way of horror, and then King gets to work examining contemporary life in all its mundane awfulness.
A lot happens in the opening episode tonight. We see a guy named Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike Vogel) burying a body in the woods. Later, when he accidentally drives off the road and onto a farm field, he witnesses a dome descending over the setting – the little town of Chester's Mill, Maine. The dome slices a cow in two and causes planes to crash. Barbie manages to save a little kid from being hit by falling plane parts.
Meanwhile, that little kid's older sister, Angie (Britt Robertson), is making out with her boyfriend, Junior (Alexander Koch). Junior isn't happy when Angie says their summer romance is over. Also, it turns out that Junior's dad is local city councilman "Big Jim" Rennie (Dean Norris from Breaking Bad), a guy with money and power and someone who has attracted the attention of local reporter Julia (Rachelle Lefevre) because of his involvement in massive propane purchases. Sure, it's all plot, but from the get-go there are hints of perversity.
Now the idea of a small community cut off from the world and revealing its secrets, possibly tearing itself apart, is not highly original. But the premise is not King's point. What he does is poke morosely at the substance of the town and its population – the powerful and the powerless, the young and the old, the naive and the cynical.
In doing so, he manages to lay bare not just individual secrets of characters but illuminate the power dynamic in a small community that represents all American society. The manner in which the young jock reacts to isolation and rejection speaks volumes about the idolization of sports figures. The manner in which the newspaper reporter feels helpless – a local tells her: "I get my news online, sweetheart, like everybody else" – speaks to the disconnect between old media and the community.
On and on it goes, this prodding at heartbreak, disappointment and fear. As in a lot of King's work, true evil is not some contrivance or strange force of nature. It's the acceptance of poverty and ignorance. Sometimes it is intellectual arrogance.
Thing is, as entertainment, Under the Dome rolls along pleasantly. You don't have to be looking for depth to enjoy. But if you do look, it's there in this subversive, rather bleak look at life.
Also airing tonight
Satisfaction (CTV, 8 p.m.) is a new comedy so slight it barely registers. Not that there's anything wrong with that necessarily – some people adore empty-headed sitcoms with wiener jokes and oodles of movie trivia and other pop-culture references.
The core character is Mark (Ryan Belleville), a 20-something slacker, a kid really, who is annoying, but you only spend 30 minutes with him. He lives with pals Jason (Luke Macfarlane) and Jason's girlfriend Maggie (Lea Renee), who are only a tiny bit more mature than Mark. Not much happens. They chat, bicker a bit and their friends and neighbours turn up.
In the opener, Mark Critch from This Hour Has 22 Minutes plays a vaguely creepy but jovial neighbour-nerd. CTV says the show is about "struggling with the next step. Whether it's committing to a career, a relationship, or living arrangements, it's not easy being a 20-something." Indeed. But it's not that funny, either.
All times ET. Check local listings.