The show is based on the legendary comics that came out in 1986 and 1987, but it’s not a direct adaptation of that story; rather, the HBO series uses it as background material to tell an entirely new tale set (mostly) in 2019, a story devised by series creator Damon Lindelof, the mastermind behind Lost and The Leftovers. His discursive storytelling techniques, which move through plot the way a queen moves across a chessboard—forward, backward, sideways, diagonally—have a lot in common with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s comic, which interwove seemingly unconnected strains into a greater web. Even when Lindelof’s stuff gets bumpy (such as the dismount of Lost or the depressing first season of The Leftovers), his storytelling is entirely seductive, and Watchmen’s first few episodes—I watched six out of a total of nine—certainly continue that trend.
Those first few episodes are confusing as hell, too. If you haven’t read Watchmen, you’ll probably be at sea for the opening stretches (the Zack Snyder movie version from 2009 made a couple of significant changes that this series ignores). Actually, you might be at sea regardless: Even though I’ve read (and seen) Watchmen, I had trouble finding my footing. If this is your first foray into the Watchmen-verse, I Imagine you won’t be that far behind comic readers, although there are references and easter eggs galore for the initiated.
Make no mistake: This Watchmen is about racism in America—its history, its evolution, and its implications in daily life. But rather than functioning as political commentary, it’s a fascinating thought experiment that springboards off Watchmen’s established alternate timeline, in which America won the Vietnam War because of a godlike superhero named Dr. Manhattan, which led Nixon to win reelection. In HBO’s Watchmen, eventually Robert Redford takes over the presidency long-term, ushering in a period of liberalism that rankles right-wing racists. (Hmm, not that alternate, is it?) It makes the provocations of Joker look like a bowl of wet noodles.
Some of the original Watchmen characters do appear: Dr. Manhattan is glimpsed briefly in the first episode, building then destroying buildings on Mars for sport; the Silk Spectre and Ozymandias are also still kicking around, although how the show reveals them is best left unsaid.
But most of the characters are new. The central figure is a masked detective named Sister Night, played by Regina King, who’s nothing short of phenomenal. Law enforcement officers in this world are required to keep their identities secret to avoid being targeted by terrorists: Beat cops wear yellow pull-up face masks, while vigilantes like Sister Night are concealed beneath full superhero getup. For example, Looking Glass—another detective, played by a terrific Tim Blake Nelson—dons a reflective covering that covers his entire skull, while the officer responsible for remotely “unlocking” the cops’ firearms does so from beneath a giant panda head. Meanwhile, the chief of police doesn’t seem to wear a disguise; he’s played by Don Johnson, who’s so goddamned charming that you’ll wish he had a bigger role.
Stick with it. The show really gets cooking around Episode 4, and Episode 5, focusing on Looking Glass, is absolutely terrific. And with that said, the series highlight could very well be Episode 6, the final one previewed for critics. An episode told ingeniously by reworking the Watchmen mythology through flashbacks, it’s simply one of the most electrifying hours of television I’ve seen this year. It had me going back to re-watch earlier episodes and noticing new things.
So, yeah, this Watchmen may not be for everyone. It’s a lot of work. But it’s work that pays off—unlike, say, Westworld, which for its first two seasons threw a bunch of confusing shit at the wall to see what stuck. (Almost nothing, apparently, which is why that show appears to be getting a hard reboot for its third season.) And Lindelof, while squirrelly with his storytelling, manages to imbue everything here with emotion, the way he did during The Leftovers’ breathtaking second and third seasons. Perhaps more significantly, he found the absolute right actors to push that emotion from out of the TV screen and into your living room. It may not be what fans of the Watchmen comic want, and it may not exactly be user-friendly to neophytes, but it’s terrific television all the same.
Watchmen premieres Sunday, October 20, on HBO.