It's only fitting that a new Watchmen adaptation, itself a divisive concept among comic book fans, should be undertaken by Damon Lindelof, arguably the most divisive man working in television today. The creator of Lost, The Leftovers, and the recently shelved The Hunt has never played it safe, and HBO's new Watchmen series is his biggest risk yet.
The original graphic novel, released as a limited-run comic series between 1986 and 1987, remains one of the most beloved and famous works in the medium. Its writer, Alan Moore, staunchly refuses to even acknowledge any adaptations of his work, demanding his name be removed from that V for Vendetta movie, Zack Snyder's own attempt at Watchmen in 2009, and now, obviously, this. Lindelof admitted to appropriating the source material against its creator's wishes in an open letter to fans last year. But it's this self-awareness that seeps into the new show's themes and makes Watchmen one of the most compelling new superhero adaptations since Moore put pen to paper.
The story, which moves to 2019—the events of Watchmen in 1985 are, here, all canon and part of the show's history—also moves to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the police wear yellow masks to protect their identities after a widespread attack on law enforcement several years ago. Police firearm use is regulated, cell phones and the Internet are outright banned, and holograms are real. Sounds great, honestly, until members of the white nationalist group the Seventh Cavalry, who wear masks inspired by Rorschach—a popular character in the comic—start putting a major plan into motion.
To say more would be to ruin the brilliant structure this Watchmen takes up. The first hour plays almost like a police procedural, with Angela Abar (Regina King, flawless, obviously) taking on the mantle of our new main character. She's part of the Tulsa Police Force as Sister Night (yeah, some of them get to wear bespoke costumes), alongside Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson in a reflective silver mask), Red Scare (an overweight pragmatist with a Soviet accent) and Pirate Jenny (cool outfit; doesn't get to do much).
Abar is a perfect new face for the series. King grounds her with real vulnerability when she's dragged into a larger conspiracy than she ever thought possible, alongside scenes in which she casually squeegees off a bunch of tiny squids, which fell from the sky, from her windshield.
Right. Squids. About that.
New viewers will likely require at least some CliffsNotes on what came before, since all of the Watchmen graphic novel is, as noted, canon and history. A history in which an interdimensional squid monster suddenly appeared in New York and released a psychic blast, killing millions. A history in which Robert Redford has been president since 1992 (Nixon having previously repealed term limits). A history in which masked vigilantes have been operating outside of the law for nearly a century. But first, a real history lesson. Watchmen's first scene shows us its version of the very real Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, a shameful piece of America's past that informs most of what comes later in this brilliant, agonising story.
As Watchmen delves deeper into its own history, it becomes something special. The show we were watching at first becomes just a patch on a giant tapestry that recontextualizes moments from the comic and far, far earlier. One particular character's story, which has been told since Watchmen's earliest days, gets an entire black-and-white episodic treatment, and not only puts the new series in a new perspective, but speaks to the major themes of the stories we tell, retell, and tell again, and how violence, anger, and pain can be sanitised as heroism if you omit enough of the story.
Those themes reverberate even in the show's earliest moments: Unpacking Rorschach's political identity is a terrible idea and we'd be here all day, but he certainly wasn't a white nationalist. Now, 30 years after Rorschach's death, a new group of people whose aims he could never comprehend wear his face to intimidate, to tell their own story. Is that not, in a way, Lindelof himself admitting he's doing the same thing? The show will undoubtedly be hard to watch for some, especially those who might consider police violence being glorified here, which in some cases becomes dangerously plausible, until the rug's pulled out from under us yet again, of course. Nothing's black and white in Watchmen—except those snazzy Cavalry masks.
Of course, while blazing its new trail, Watchmen still leaves plenty of room for straight-up fan service. Doctor Manhattan is a major presence in the series, even though he's still sequestered on Mars in self-exile. Jeremy Irons as the lord of a sprawling English manor is, as the press release puts it, "probably who you think he is," a former vigilante himself whose story, company, and surroundings become increasingly sinister the more we learn about them. Even Nite Owl II's airship (or something that resembles it nearly exactly) makes an appearance; it was last seen shooting fire into the night sky during one of cinema's most seminal, mortifying s** scenes. Like The Leftovers before it (Lindelof recruited director Nicole Kassell, as well as several writers from that beloved series), Watchmen is not without a sense of humour alongside its despair, and is no stranger to an absolutely psychotic needle drop.
With just nine episodes in its first season (Lindelof says it was designed as a standalone story, but is open to revisiting if there's enough demand), Watchmen is intricate and careful with its sprawling mythology. No character is misused, no line is out of place, and no one gets to do anything they're not going to be made to answer for later. This is one of the best shows of the year, superheroes or no superheroes. In fact, Watchmen doesn't much care about the difference.