Starring: Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, Don Johnson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jeremy Irons, and Jean Smart
Created for Television by Damon Lindelof
Note: Episodes 1-6 provided for review. Minor Spoilers Ahead.
1986’s WATCHMEN was a 12-issue anti-Reagan manifesto. It leveled sharp criticism at capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and a corrupt government through the lens of Charlton Comics analogues who served as bigger-than-life avatars for the themes.
2019’s WATCHMEN is a 9-episode anti-fascist screed, leveling that same criticism at police brutality, institutionalized racism, and cavernous racial power dynamics, effortlessly “remixing” the mythos of the original text, using a whole new generation of heroes as its own avatars.
That’s right, True Believers, despite everything and all odds, HBO’s WATCHMEN is a soaring triumph. WATCHMEN is spearheaded by Damon Lindelof, as well as a large number of staffers and directors from The Leftovers. WATCHMEN more than lives up to the hype, taking the themes, goals, and satirical targets of the original text and effortlessly translating them for modern audiences, all while never losing the incendiary, thrilling pulp edge of the source material. Pissed off, whip-smart, and immaculately acted, HBO’s WATCHMEN delivers unto us the heroes we both need and deserve.
We open with two harrowing statements of intent from Lindelof, who either is writing or co-writing every episode this season. Back in 1921, in Tulsa, OK, the streets ran red with the blood of black Americans. Though largely scrubbed from American history, The Black Wall Street Massacre of ‘21 was one of the single goriest days in American history. A day in which an entire affluent section of Tulsa, made so by smart investing by African-American traders and business owners, was wiped off the map. This was thanks to sweeping, coordinated Klan violence that destroyed shops, raped women, and brutally crushed black excellence under its heel. Simply for being.
From there we move to present-day Tulsa. Tulsa is once again a thriving metropolis thanks to President Robert Redford and an unprecedented rollout of reparations (derisively called “Redfordrations” by the ignorant of this world). A masked police officer has pulled over a suspected member of the 7th Kavalry. He pleads with his shift commander to unlock his sidearm, which is now always housed in their squad cars and can only be accessed when allowed by remote. But before he can, the suspect opens fire. He puts the officer into a coma and kicks off the tense, racially charged event of this series.
So, the long and short of it is 2019’s WATCHMEN is a pointed commentary on race. Believe me. I am just as shocked typing that sentence as you are reading it. Through clever world-building and more than a few clear-eyed translations of the original comic’s themes, Lindelof has effectively transformed WATCHMEN into an intrinsically black story. One that takes pointed aim at racism, both internalized and institutionalized, and uses the metaphor of “masks” to hammer home the point.
But, that isn’t to say that WATCHMEN is just a 9-hour civics lesson. No, no, that’s just the immensely satisfying icing on the cake. WATCHMEN is also an eminently watchable and engrossing mystery, anchored by bravura performances, sharp scripts, and dynamic direction. All wrapped in an impressive, constantly unnerving Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross score. Emulating the original novel’s character-focused construction, each episode judiciously doles out answers, bringing viewers deeper and deeper into this world and minds of its costumed heroes.
Led by the magnetic, ready-for-awards Regina King, each episode laser-focuses on a member of the cast, fleshing out the “vast and insidious conspiracy” at the show’s heart. King’s Sister Night is our lead, a dedicated, ruthless “masked detective” who is drawn into the mystery thanks to a chance encounter with an anachronism of a man (a gleefully obtuse Louis Gossett, Jr.). One of her co-workers, the enigmatic Looking Glass (the wonderfully off-beat Tim Blake Nelson), is also drawn into the quagmire. He’s obsessed with “trans-dimensional attacks,” like the one that felled New York City back in ‘85, and he also has a knack for sussing out the truth of any situation.
And all the while, on the fringes of the story, one Adrian Veidt, played with over-the-top charm and menace by Jeremy Irons, languishes in a sort of Prisoner-esque estate, tinkering and drinking away the days while the world spins closer to upheaval once more. To say more would be to give away some of WATCHMEN’s juiciest secrets, but believe me when I say, it has plenty of story to tell and isn’t afraid to go big to tell it.
And so, using the same satirical blade and pointed “of the moment-ness” of the original text, HBO’s WATCHMEN stands as both a worthy tribute to and continuation of the seminal comic text. One that isn’t afraid to hold a mirror up to the section of the audience that misinterpreted it’s “cool, edgy” storytelling of the classic and say, “These are your idols. Look how they fester.” as it delivers episode after episode of bold “remixing” of the novel’s iconography. I truly cannot recommend it enough. Nor can I believe it’s actually THIS good.
Until next time, be seeing you…