The idea is simple: An invisible dome descends on a small American town, isolating it from the world. Planes, birds, trucks and people crash into the dome; nothing can pass in or out. Soon, the scarcity of resources and nasty secrets harbored by certain individuals will make life almost intolerable for those stuck inside.
A clever Stephen King concept will come to the small screen with help from Denver's Neal Baer next week. Oh, and there's a visual when the dome first descends, involving a cow standing in the wrong place, that's a jaw-dropper. Carpaccio!
The scary-fun highlight of the summer, "Under the Dome" premieres Monday on CBS, locally at 9 p.m. on Channel 4.
Judging by the first hour, "Under the Dome" is an immediately enticing mystery-thriller.
Denver native Neal Baer ("ER," "Law & Order: SVU") is working alongside King as executive producer, extending the story well beyond the book, which covered only a period of two weeks.
Not only is it creepy, suspenseful and full of splendid special effects, veteran actors and fresh young faces, but it's laced with big thoughts about environmentalism and the future of the planet. Those are concerns Baer nurtures on and off the production.
Baer, a proud grad of Cherry Creek High School (1973) and Colorado College who visits Denver and environs several times a year, says the show is not a miniseries, not a procedural, not a soap opera but "a recurring hybrid," with 13 episodes each summer.
"It's like a great beach read," Baer said.
As a nod to current user trends, viewers can binge on multiple episodes on Amazon.
While it's a fun TV thrill ride, the story carries serious themes.
"I call it a parable for our times," Baer said.
The eco-warnings embedded within the tale are easy to spot. "With the water crisis facing the West, in California, Colorado and New Mexico, we're in our own kind of bio-dome in real life," Baer said.
As in the best scary stories, "the monsters are ourselves, our own psyches," Baer said, and what humans have wrought, as townsfolk confront who gets what resource, and what happens when money is of no value.
The first season is divided into three acts. The first essentially treats the concept of faith. "People are convinced the government will help," Baer said, but it's like going to the Wizard and being disappointed with what's behind the curtain.
"Then comes fear," as the realization dawns that they might be stuck under there for an unknown amount of time. "That causes panic and conflict."
The third act is fascism. In this section, "the major themes are sustainability, lack of resources and how are we going to govern ourselves?"
This may be Baer's most overtly political series yet, although "SVU" certainly had its politically charged issues. This time, sci-fi is bumping into environmental concerns.
Colorado rootsBaer, a trustee at Colorado College, will be back in town in August for a Cherry Creek High School class reunion. He stays in touch with many classmates: "Those bonds are really deep."
Baer was helped into show business by his boyhood friend John Wells, who brought him onto "China Beach," and later after Baer earned a medical degree at Harvard, "ER." Wells, who is directing the film "August: Osage County," was a year behind Baer at Cherry Creek.
Baer is much more attuned to the politics of Colorado than of his adopted California, and he's a fan of local democrats John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall.
The politics of education is one of his passions, and he's involved with a national program, now launched in Aurora, called College Track, which prepares students of color for college. He's specifically interested in increasing diversity at his alma mater, CC.
Baer segues easily from talk of his work with Hollywood A-listers to childhood memories of Denver. As a boy, he took two buses downtown to the movies. He recalls seeing "West Side Story" at age 5 at the Bluebird Theater on West Colfax Avenue.
"In junior high, I was in the choir, and we used to sing songs from 'Gigi' and 'Carousel' ... I never dreamed in my life that the songs I was singing and the shows I was watching ... that I would work with Leslie Caron and Rita Moreno. My best friend and I would watch 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' every Friday night. I went up to Robert Vaughn when he was in 'SVU' and told him. You just don't know where your life is going to go."
His work beyond TV entertainment tends toward advocacy. Baer's first feature documentary in 20-plus years, "If You Build It" — about a young activist who took design thinking to the poorest county in North Carolina to build a farmers market for the community — was a winner at Sundance and is going to AFI soon.
"I'm hoping it comes to the Denver Film Festival," he said.
His second novel, "Kill Again," a sequel to "Kill Switch," is due in a year.
Meanwhile Baer is an active board member with the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, supporting young entrepreneurs in areas like solar energy and water sustainability. He'll be back in town for the institute in July.
His has an astoundingly productive life and career. Does he sleep?
Occasionally his advocacy finds its way into scripts: An example of a design that Baer has incorporated from his work in Boulder that will appear in "Under the Dome" is the LifeStraw, a little straw-like device that allows the user to filter enough safe drinking water for one person for a year.
This is where having a hit television show and making a difference come together.
If enough people watch the show, see the LifeStraw and begin thinking about the finite resources on the planet, then Baer will have been a success far beyond the Nielsen ratings.
Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, jostrow@denver post.com or twitter.com/ostrowdp