Historically speaking, the comic book series "Watchmen" has been a notoriously difficult text to adapt. Does the new HBO series "Watchmen" -- developed by "The Leftovers" and "Lost" showrunner Damon Lindelof and premiering this Sunday -- succeed in putting a new spin to the tale or does it miss the mark entirely? Here's what the critics say.
Loosely Adapted From The 'Watchmen' Comic Series, The HBO Show Focuses On A New Character Played By Regina King
[T]he series picks up in an alternate version of modern America, spun from the threads left at the end of Moore's graphic novel. Robert Redford is president. There's no internet and no smartphones. Vietnam is a state. Vigilantism is outlawed, but police officers seem mighty similar, wearing masks to conceal their identities after a horrific act of terrorism by a hate group called the Seventh Kalvary left countless officers and their families dead.
Our protagonist is Angela Abar (Regina King), whose role as a Tulsa police detective is her second of three identities; to the public, she's a retired cop and professional baker, the better to shield her from a growing vigilante movement's anti-police violence […] Confronted by a mysterious old man (Louis Gossett Jr.) with a long memory and violent grievances, Angela takes on a third face, turning vigilante herself in a series of night missions she can't govern or control, ones that promise to bring her deep insight about the intersection of America's racial history and her own.
While The Show Is A New Spin On The Comics, Some Prior Knowledge Of The Source Material Is Advised
Watchmen will be utterly confusing without at least some passing knowledge of the origin story. This is a tale that begs for context, no matter how compelling and wonderfully baroque Lindelof's telling is. So, yes, if you know nothing about Watchmen other than HBO's tantalizing trailers (and a standout cast that includes Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, Don Johnson, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons and others), you'd be well-served, at the very least, by reading the Wikipedia backstory.
The Political Themes The Show Grapples Feel More Timely Than Ever
The series opens not in the Tulsa of 2019 but the Tulsa of 1921, when the city became the site of the Tulsa race massacre, a weekend-long incident that culminated with white rioters destroying the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood (also known as Black Wall Street), even attacking it by air. That violence resonates throughout the series, in ways specific to its characters and setting but also in its concern with racism in America, which remains as much unsettled business in the series' world as in ours.
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.
Rather than simply retell the comic story at greater length, Lindelof has taken an enormous swing. He's sidestepped adaptation altogether and created a sequel set in the same universe as the comic, that is faithful to the events of that story but only features a few characters from it. The setting -- present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma -- is completely different. So is the show's central theme of white supremacy.
… Although The Social Commentary Of 'Watchmen' Sometimes Falls Flat
King is captivating as Abar. But her performance can only do so much to distract you from the fact the Watchmen (at least in its first episode) frames white terrorists and cops as being diametrically-opposed groups that have no ideological overlap. Because this is a show that's meant to explore aspects of American society, that framing just doesn't work, or rather it doesn't work if you're actually trying to think your way through the multitude of things Watchmen is attempting to comment on.
[A]nyone living in America will be familiar with the alt-presentÂ WatchmenÂ envisions. A series of jaded cops, each more fed-up than the last, navigate a world of militant racists with militant means of their own. "Do you know how to tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?" asks Blake. Abar doesn't. "Me neither." The series loves to traffic in provocative duality, like the line between accountability and safety. Those provocations may give (actress Jean) Smart plenty of sass to sink her teeth into, but seems disingenuous considering the show's ambitious thematic center.
Things get murkier when "Watchmen" turns its focus to race. Lindelof has said that he wanted to tackle the 2019 political equivalent of the comics' commentary on the Cold War, and "it felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America."
Perhaps after seeing the three remaining first-season episodes, the thesis will come into shocking relief, as Lindelof has promised critics and fans. But two-thirds of the way in, it's hard to parse what the series is trying to say, other than to point out that racism is bad and even well-intentioned institutions are built on a systemically racist foundation. This isn't a bad moral, but there's a staggering amount of violence employed against black people to make the argument, a display of pain and suffering that verges on exhibitionist at times.
There Are Many Parallels To Be Drawn Between 'Watchmen' And Lindelof's Previous Work
In many ways, Watchmen feels like Lindelof coming home to write about the story he's always wanted to tell, instead of writing around it, or perhaps through it. His candid open letter to Watchmen fans, penned in the style of Doctor Manhattan's musings, reinforced his lifelong dedication to the story and how it shaped his own sense of storytelling. Lindelof's love for and admitted riffing on Moore's narrative devices was readily apparent in his The Leftovers series adaptation, which built from Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name into a staggering exploration of faith, religion, death, reality and the divine.
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.
And The Strength Of The Show Is Definitely The Richness Of Its Characters
So much energy [sic] is spent on the sociopolitical elements of the series, but "Watchmen" is at its best when it tries a little less hard to be profound and instead focuses on the fascinating and deep cast of characters. Even in an age of superheroic saturation, "Watchmen" stands out for its richly drawnÂ characters and restrained special effects.Â Â
Enough cannot be said about how excellent King is in the role, a physical force who harnesses her preternatural ability to express the depths of human experience with the slightest expression. Nobody does stoic and steely better while somehow also communicating a ROYGBIV-level spectrum of emotion. And she's surrounded by equally intriguing characters and performances.
While The Show Occasionally Stumbles, 'Watchmen' Is, Overall, An Entertaining Watch
The thematic throughline of the past's haunting echoes and tangible consequences can get hammy at times, but it's still a fascinating concept for a sequel series that nobody asked for.
It's (Watchmen) yet another example of a creator prone to the odd being freed up to follow that instinct to further lands. There wasn't any time in the six episodes available for review where the pace seemed to slacken, a particular achievement because Lindelof and his team of writers are working to make these characters a lot more than their masks and backstories; their personal reflections render them more interesting in the long run.
Where the novel's world threatened to teeter into nuclear apocalypse, it's division, subterranean political movements, and hateful ideology that trouble the world of the series, pushing it to the edge of disaster with only groups of troubled, conflicted, and confused heroes standing in the way -- just like before, and yet not like before at all. This isn't the same Watchmen all over again. It's a Watchmen custom-fitted for the times at hand.