REVIEWED: SEASON 1 (ALL EPISODES) | WHERE TO WATCH: NOWTV
Famously unfilmable, until it was filmed in 2009, Watchmen is one of comic books’ most sacred cows. The twelve-issue series, published by DC Comics in 1985, told of a world where costumed heroes had become first the norm, and then outlawed by governmental decree, and wove a tightly-plotted tale of murder, deceit, and inter-dimensional squid incursion.
Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation was fairly faithful to the source material, albeit with a heavy bit of re-writing to the ending, but sadly failed to garner much affection and only just recouped what it cost to make. Perhaps with this is mind, for the 2019 HBO TV series former Lost and The Leftovers showrunner Damon Lindelof chose another tack entirely, and delivered a sequel, set thirty-four years after the original comic book.
There have been other stories set in the Watchmen world since the original comic book, none of which met the approval of creator Alan Moore, who is famously grumpy about adaptations of his work, and who fell out with DC Comics for good over the rights to the series. Most of those were set Before Watchmen, with only the lacklustre and fatally-delayed Doomsday Clock attempting to work with the world after Adrian Veidt’s cunning plan, so it’s no understatement to say that Lindelof is either very brave or extremely hubristic.
Lindelof claimed that, although the success of the show makes future seasons inevitable, this first season was made to stand alone and tell a self-contained story, and for the most part, he succeeds. While there are loose ends left dangling at the climax of Episode Nine, it is not essential to tie these for the season as a whole to work.
Lindelof’s Watchmen is essentially the story of Regina King’s Angela Abar, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, detective who wears a mask to do her job. In fact, all of Tulsa’s police wear masks, with beat cops in standard-issue yellow face coverings, and the detectives adopting colourful, superhero-like identities. Abar is Sister Night, with a no-nonsense approach to policing, and is joined on the Tulsa force by Looking Glass, Red Scare, Pirate Jenny, and Panda. These are your Crimebusters, but the world of 2019 is very different to the one we know.
Veidt’s plan to create an external enemy, uniting Cold War adversaries, has succeeded, but we see little of the world outside of Tulsa. Episode One begins with a recreation of the Tulsa race riots of 1921, and this sets the scene for the show, with themes of redemption and, particularly racial, justice front and centre. Echoing the structure of the comic book, a mysterious killing sparks off a set of events that gather momentum, drawing in former Silk Spectre - and now FBI agent - Sally Blake (neé Juspeczyk) to investigate a Rorschach-inspired white supremacist organisation.
The scope and ambition of the show is fully met by its execution, with half its episodes the equal of any created for TV in a banner year for the medium, and Episodes Five and Six ranking as two of the best single episodes of television ever. Regina King is exceptional as Abar, her charisma matched only by Tim Blake Nelson and Don Johnson as Looking Glass and Chief of Police Judd Crawford, respectively. Legion’s Jean Smart is world-worn and acerbic as Agent Blake, while everything involving Jeremy Irons, in what appears to be an unrelated side-story (à la the original comic book’s Black Freighter segments), is delightful.
Unusually, ratings for Watchmen improved as the show wore on, with 1.6 million people watching the finale live on HBO in the US, short of the heights reached by Game of Thrones and Westworld, but incredibly healthy for a show based on a niche of a niche. It’s a show that rewards continued watching, too, with the mystery box format successfully employed (and your mileage may vary as to whether that’s a good thing).
Whether Watchmen succeeds or fails depends on if you can accept one of the original comic book’s central tenets, but without giving away terminal spoilers, it’s difficult to say more. For this reviewer, however, it works perfectly, and presents a linear continuation of the world created by Moore and Gibbons. If Lindelof stays true to his word, then this is a tidy, accomplished nine episodes, but it creates an appetite for more stories set in this fully-realised corner of the post-squid world, hopefully with more Lubeman.