The people of the small US town of Chester's Mill have a very big problem. There they were, going about their daily business in a peaceable small-town kind of way when suddenly an enormous dome-shaped force field appeared out of nowhere, trapping the inhabitants underneath and cutting them off from society. Those of you with long memories might stop at this point and exclaim: "Wait, wasn't that a plot point on The Simpsons Movie?
Didn't Springfield get sealed off because of pollution and then everyone went slowly mad and tried to kill Homer?" You're absolutely right, and the biggest problem with Under the Dome is trying not to shout "D'ooooohhhmme!" in your best Homer voice while watching it.
What saves it from being little more than a (somewhat belated) punch line is the fact that Under the Dome is adapted from Stephen King's 2009 bestseller and thus things swiftly became rather more interesting than the initial slightly tired premise suggested.
First of all, this dome was clearly dangerous. A woman lost her arm and most of her house; various characters suffered electric shocks and bloodied their palms touching it; it seems to have a bad effect on pacemakers; two teenagers collapsed and began babbling incoherently about stars and lines.
This was all interesting enough, as was the suggestion that the US government have no idea what's going on. The show's real power, though, came not from the big moments but from its creeping sense of unease. No one does small-town paranoia better than King and everyone from the local politician and his sociopathic son to the local paper's editor and her estranged husband appeared to hiding some sort of dark secret or other.
The sheriff may have been involved in dodgy deals, the politician had been stockpiling propane canisters in the days before the Dome's arrival, and as for the handsome drifter with the mysterious past, well, what can you say about a man who willingly gives his name as Barbie, except that, working on the principles laid out in "A Boy Named Sue", I'm presuming he got tough while others did the dying.
Still, there's nothing like the arrival of an impenetrable force field to separate the men from the boys and it was Barbie, aided by the grisly demise of an innocent cow, who swiftly realised that the good people of Chester's Mill were in serious trouble. Suddenly dead crows were plunging out of the sky, cars were crashing and families and homes were ripped asunder. Not that everyone was horrified: the local teens took advantage of the sudden absence of some parents and threw a massive party while the pirate radio station, the only place still able to pick up signals, celebrated their new-found omnipresence on the airwaves.
By the episode's end, we were no closer to finding out what the dome really was or indeed why it had suddenly appeared there, but the idea of a community cut off from civilisation couldn't help but recall the giddy heyday of Lost's mysterious island and a strong enough base had been laid to suggest finding out just what's really happening here might prove to be solid summer fun.
That's more than could be said about the night's other US import. Emily Owens MD is a pretty-looking piece of abject fluff starring Meryl Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer as an incredibly annoying junior doctor who never stops talking, appears to think she's still in high school and spends more time mooning over male doctors than attempting any sort of diagnosis. It's Grey's Anatomy with a lobotomy and double the saccharine and I watched it through my fingers hoping that the game Gummer finds a more worthy vehicle soon.