HBO’s “Watchmen” takes place in an alternate universe but is very clearly about our own existence in 2019 America. Just as Damon Lindelof used a catastrophic event to examine relatable issues like trauma and grief in his masterful “The Leftovers,” he takes extreme ideas in this exaggerated universe and finds a way for them to connect to our own national anxiety. In turn, the world of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel becomes more of a launching pad for a show that is distinctly its own brilliant creation. This is breathtaking, ambitious television that only gets richer with each subsequent episode.
Starting in 1986, the graphic novel Watchmen deconstructed the very concept of heroism. A product of the ‘80s, it took its title and main theme from the Juvenal poetic line translated over the years as “Who watches the watchmen?” Very much a reflection of its time, Watchmen incorporated fears of Reagan-era America into a narrative that took heroism seriously, commenting on everything from the Cold War to the nuclear arms race. And it created a world of new heroes, villains, and anti-heroes, including memorable characters like Rorschach, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, and the Comedian. It is helpful to know this world, but not necessary. (Still, I would always recommend reading Watchmen. It’s excellent.)
The show picks up 35 years after the end of the book, and references and eventually includes some characters from it, while also introducing some new ones. The main protagonist is Angela Abar (Regina King), a Tulsa police officer who also happens to be a shadowy figure known as Sister Night. In a series premiere that fearlessly tackles racial animosity and the divisions in this country, we learn that police officers have been forced to become masked heroes because men and women of the law are so regularly targeted by fringe groups like the 7th Cavalry, who wear Rorschach masks and seem to be seeking anarchy. The police force and superhero culture have intertwined, meaning someone with special powers like the human-lie-detector Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) works with someone like the Tulsa Chief of Police (Don Johnson). However, vigilantism is still outlawed.
Any series premiere that opens with the violent shooting of a black police officer by a white man is throwing down a gauntlet that declares that this is not going to be a typical bout of superhero escapism. “Watchmen,” especially that first episode, is daring in its use of incendiary imagery, but it never feels like exploitation or controversy for the sake of it. I expect that the premiere will produce some burning hot takes, but I would ask everyone to be patient with this show. Lindelof and his writers have an amazing ability to subvert imagery and narrative expectations. It’s a show that very rarely telegraphs where it’s going next, but always feels confident in how it takes you there. It’s the kind of thing I’m positive people will want to watch again when it’s over to see how it fits together and how Lindelof and his team are playing with themes early that rise to the surface later.
Obviously, I’m being purposefully vague in terms of exactly what this show is about. A shocking ending to the premiere leads Angela to explore her own past, and really the history of the United States in both this universe and ours. “Watchmen” has so many themes woven through its narrative, but the first six episodes feel primarily to me to be about the national unease in a society that not only feels like it was forged through a violence that never really went away, it just changed faces, put on masks, or went underground. It’s not so much about heroes who keep the peace as it is a commentary on how people find comfort in an uncomfortable world. Of course, this will sound familiar to fans of “The Leftovers,” another show about moving through a world of shared trauma. The fifth episode of “Watchmen” is a masterful examination of fear in a post-9/11 world that opens at a boardwalk carnival and feels at times like a funhouse mirror of “The Leftovers.”
It’s the writing of “Watchmen” that will make it a weekly talking point on social media and through think pieces, but every element of this show deserves praise. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Oscar winners for “The Social Network,” wrote an original score that is quite simply one of the best in TV history. It is propulsive and mesmerizing, enhancing the show in every way. And there’s not a weak link in the cast. By now, we all now that Regina King can do just about anything, and she’s joined by Nelson’s best work in years and phenomenal supporting performances from Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons.
As great as these performances are, “Watchmen” has a cumulative power that comes from every aspect of its production. Scenes can stand alone—the prologues are especially powerful and Irons’ scenes as Adrian Veidt are surreal and captivating—but it’s the overall mood, tone, and thematic exploration that brings it all together. Rarely have I been more and more impressed with a show as each episode unfolded. The book had a similar power, wowing you with its world building in early chapters, but feeling even richer when it was complete. It is often cited as a game-changer for its entire medium. The show could find a similar fate.
Six episodes screened for review.