Expect to struggle gloriously with HBO's involving, multifaceted comic adaptation.

By Darren Franich
October 15, 2019 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Incident swirls through fearful shining Tulsa. On Sept. 8, 2019, a policeman conducts a traffic stop, and winds up full of bullets. The cop is black, the shooter is white, and the bloodshed is an act of terrorism. The Seventh Kalvary — a local branch of high-artillery racism — takes credit for the violence, hiding their identities behind inkblot masks, posting a braggy video like trolls celebrating maximum pwnage.

The police wear masks, too. It’s a defensive necessity. Years back, the Seventh K staged a mass assault on law enforcement, onslaughting officers in their homes while they slept. Now, beat cops model bright yellow facewraps, nose-mouth-chin covered like they’re robbing banks in the Neon West. Detectives get to personalize their persona. Angela Abar (Regina King) looks like a ninja nun under her hood, so they call her Sister Night. Her colleague codenamed Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson, voice like a lonely bourbon barrel) wears a formfitting mirror reflecting the world around him, which surely must be a metaphor for something. Police Chief Crawford (Don Johnson) doesn’t have a Costume costume, but his choice of headgear is a telling nudge: a white cowboy hat is never just a hat.

The series premiere of HBO’s Watchmen (debuting 9:00 p.m. on Sunday) proceduralizes Tulsa PD’s investigation of the shooting: Off-book interrogations, splattery gundowns. The episode begins much earlier, though, amid true events and fake nonfiction. A young boy (Danny Boyd Jr.) watches a silent movie about Bass Reeves, the Black Marshal of Oklahoma. The kid’s seen the film enough to memorize the intertitles. A good thing, since he might never watch it again. The boy happens to be African American, and outside the theater, there’s a goddamn massacre going on. It’s 1921, and white men are scourging the Greenwood neighborhood, raining bloody hell. Here’s the mood Watchmen launches from: The end of the world, 99 years ago.

That real-life event sparks Watchmen‘s hysterical fiction, though it’s not immediately clear how it connects together. What does all this have to do with the trillionaire buying farmland in the Sooner State? How does that relate to the FBI agent hunting down masked vigilantes? Is it relevant that God exists, and he’s a crummy blue ex-boyfriend who lives on Mars? At one point in the series premiere, a loud air raid siren echoes through Tulsa, and tiny interdimensional squids shower out of the sky. That’s a normal event in this America, but we all have our extreme weather patterns.

Watchmen was the great comic book of the 1980s, and still might be The Great Comic Book, right up there next to The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. The 12-issue miniseries, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, crafted an alternate superhero version of the 20th century. Moore’s storytelling cut freely across time and space, from PR-happy vigilantes fighting gangsters in the New Deal Era through late-nuclear terror in President Nixon’s fifth presidential term.

The TV series comes from Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost and The Leftovers, who meticulously honors Moore’s revised history. Angela was born in Vietnam, the 51st United State. A large swath of America suffers cultural PTSD from the psychic assault that climaxed the graphic novel, which left three million New Yorkers with their heads blown open, and a giant interdimensional squid husk lying across Manhattan. Major characters from the text reappear, thirty years older, looking great. Laurie (Jean Smart), once the second-generation Silk Spectre, is now a federal agent. Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt (Jeremy Irons), the brilliant uber-genius who false-flagged the Space Squid, is all alone in his castle, like Kane in Xanadu. There’s more, much more, in the six episodes I’ve seen from this nine-episode debut season. The pilot itself has enough pure plot for two seasons of Netflix anything, and I haven’t even gotten to the old mystery man in the wheelchair, played with piercing humor by Louis Gossett Jr.

Necessary full disclosure: One of the people who worked on the Watchmen TV series is a friend, a former colleague, and the guy I talked with about Twin Peaks for several dozen podcasting hours. Feel free to dismiss my qualified positivity about this wonder show, but I suspect you will be able to slice Watchmen critical bias in several dozen directions, if you’re inclined to get under the hood and solve where opinions come from. The comic is a sacred piece of culture, the kind of totem that young blowhards will inevitably declare untouchable. Moore himself has a justified disregard for any Hollywood flyby over his material, and receives no onscreen credit (the end titles declare that this material is “based on characters co-created for DC by Dave Gibbons”). The comic was previously adapted by Zack Snyder into a 2009 feature film, and like anything Snyder-adjacent, his aggro-broseph Watchmen has its loud defenders. (Great opening credits, downhill from there.)

So Lindelof’s series risks third-railing multiple strands of outraged fandom. There is a general focus on new characters, and the central question of what the hell we’re doing in Tulsa. Old characters reappear in troubling ways. Rorschach, the T-shirtiest Watchmen icon for a generation of lonelyboy anger, exists here as a symbol for straight-up white supremacy.

Nerd fury is a crushing phenomenon this decade, but Lindelof’s provocations run more prestigiously political. In the go-go ’80s, Moore conjured a feeling of melancholic paranoia, imagining a Cold War on the edge of global oblivion, the kind of misery Manhattan where a lone maniac would carry a sign proclaiming “The End is Near.” That’s, like, the mainstream vibe of 2019 — but in TV show’s version of the present-day, Robert Redford has been a liberal President for over two decades, long enough to install a system of reparations for African American citizens. World-building like that suggests a progressive vision of tomorrow, today. Policemen can’t carry guns without getting clearance from dispatch, and officers must request consent from anyone they pull over. Tobacco is against the law, and sugar’s next. In the premiere, Angela walks by a guy holding up a placard: “THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT.”

You sense the game Lindelof is playing here. Some people might be upset that their cool fan fave Rorschach is getting the toxic-racist rap, and then some other people might reasonably wonder how a superhero tale (created by white British guys and rebooted by a white man from Jersey) wound up parading true-life racial terror through a saga of airships and colorful outfits.

Watchmen‘s cast is quite a bit more diverse than the comic book, which honored (and, to be clear, totally vivisected) the white-dudes-plus-a-lady layout of most pre-millennial superteams. There’s a brilliant sequence where Angela and Laurie meet the aforementioned trillionaire, the commanding techno-guru Lady Triu (Hong Chau.) Here they are, three great actresses all born before Nixon’s fourth term, playing three distinct (opposing?) variations of empowerment. But you sense a certain strain of high-octane wokeness getting satirized, too. There’s a show-within-a-show, American Hero Story, an implicitly Ryan Murphy-ish tabloid docudrama, and it’s introduced with a comically elaborate federal warning that goes way beyond TV-MA:

THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED, INCLUDING THE DEPICTIONS OF PERSONS OF COLOR AND MEMBERS OF THE LGBTQA+ COMMUNITY, DO NOT REFLECT ANY OFFICIAL POLICY OR POSITION OF THE US GOVERNMENT. THIS PROGRAM CONTAINS GRAPHIC LANGUAGE, VIOLENCE, NUDITY, MISOGYNY, RACISM, ANTI-SEMITISM, HATE CRIMES, AND DEPICTIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT.

That 21-trigger warning is a sincere flare for Watchmen viewers. But it’s played for laughs, too: Angela’s husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) watches American Hero Story with their young son, apparently unconcerned about the sundry isms attacking his child’s innocent eyeballs. What I’m getting at is, I don’t know if there’s a sensibility that will walk away entirely unoffended. This isn’t, like, a superhero project blank enough to welcome allegorical interpretation from viewers who enjoy excavating subtext. Watchmen is an explosive saga of American racism, ripped from history and headlines. Lindelof has described this project as a “remix” of the comic book, but it’s also an obvious remix of our own topical moment. That traffic stop scene is a conflagration of left-right hashtags, a Black Blue life mattering. The storytelling’s not safe; there is a lynching motif.

It helps, I think, that Watchmen assumes the focal structure of Lindelof’s earlier shows (and the best Watchmen issues), carving deep into the psychodramas of individual characters. The series proves an immediately brilliant showcase for Regina King, the recent Oscar winner who has dominated quality television this decade. Angela’s a woman in full: a devoted mom to three kids who still finds time for hot sex with her hot hubs, a swagger-y top cop playing by her own rules in a system that might be corrupt, a confused questing hero with secrets in her own past.

Nelson is a magnetic presence, even though you barely see his face in the early episodes. He underplays as much as Johnson overplays — and wait till you see the Sonny Crockett of yesteryear sing “People Will Say We’re In Love” riding high on something powder-y. This is a hotblooded tale with room for big performances. No one’s bigger than Irons, who gets to play with the loopiest material. The first two episodes are directed by Nicole Kassell, who helmed the Lion Sex Cult episode of The Leftovers, and she brings a muscular comic energy to material that can lean toward Leftovers‘ bathtub-of-pure-sadness vibe. The score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is exciting and inhuman, cosmic horror at the demon disco.

On the page, Watchmen was a rigidly constructed creation, with Moore unleashing motifs and recurrences across Gibbons’ 9-panel grid. The TV series is more wandering, especially as it moves beyond the initial investigation into a more expansive vision of the world arriving in Tulsa. You can always feel some tension: The instinct to invent an entirely brand-new plotline, the simultaneous urge to fetishize micro-details from the source material. I have no clue what newcomers will think about the Ozymandias Squid thing. (Hell, even readers only really had to deal with the Squid for a few memorable pages.) The show is generally good at nudging toward its source material without requiring a master’s degree in Alan Moore. Still, there are bouts of undigested canon. One FBI agent basically reads Laurie her own biography, by way of explaining to non-readers who this lady is.

I have one major quibble, as one of those readers who can still remember what 3:37 a.m. felt like the night I started reading Watchmen and just could not stop. Jean Smart is a playful presence as Laurie, a smirky mask-hating bull in everybody else’s my-costume-is-my-pathology china shop. And yet, I don’t think the show really connects TV-Laurie to the source character. In Moore’s telling (and Gibbons’ drawing), Laurie was the wounded cynic, an all-too-human wild card who was also the only main character in Watchmen who existed beyond obvious allegory. Making her an FBI agent seems too easy, somehow. It’s a very obvious TV drama-ish job — and you remember how Moore imagined older heroes operating car shops and living in old folks’ homes. You lose some of that ordinary magic when every major character is a tycoon, a senator, or some kind of law enforcement agent. (Angela’s secret hideout is a bakery — but the busy plot doesn’t let her bake anything.)

Credit Lindelof and his collaborators for telling a hyperbolic story shaded with good humor and sweet emotion. Like Lost, it’s a sci-fi tale shrouded in theory-provoking mystery. (Squids aren’t the only things falling out of the sky.) Like The Leftovers, it’s a vividly felt tale of generational sorrow, tapping deeper weirdness and structural experimentation as it goes along. Watchmen doesn’t overdose on nostalgia, like so many franchise extensions in our reboot-soaked decade. It’s dangerous, and invigorating. Like the proverbial Space Squid, it blew my mind. A-

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