'Watchmen': TV Review

Relentlessly entertaining, odd and creative.
10/20/2019

With a starry cast featuring Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson and more, Damon Lindelof's trip-tastic take on the comic books is HBO's latest big swing.

It's difficult to fully describe the visual and storytelling audacity behind HBO's Watchmen, a series that warps perception in keenly original ways. It's based on the late-1980s cult comic books of the same name (co-created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons), then given a wholly different spin by Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), a superfan of the source material but a wildly creative force of his own. This latest version (there was also a Zack Snyder movie in 2009) is simultaneously unique — it will certainly bring in fans of Lindelof's work and HBO's pedigree — and true to the spirit of the comics.

The challenge that Lindelof and HBO face is a pretty simple one: 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 its 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. (Lindelof himself has said that if the series has new fans scrambling to discover the original work, that will be reward enough.)

Lindelof recently raised some eyebrows at New York Comic Con by stating, apparently for the first time, that the nine-episode first season serves as a stand-alone piece. Meaning it has a beginning, middle and end with no cliff-hanger or promise of a second season, though he hinted that future seasons could indeed happen, with or without him, depending on the reaction. But a closed-ended story could mean the deaths of characters central to the story. (HBO sent critics six of the nine episodes, and after having watched all six — no spoilers needed or desired — I can safely say that the three unseen episodes will hold the biggest clues as to what a second season would look like.)

Lindelof's idea of picking up the story in 2019 allows him to frame it primarily in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a modern-day standoff between white nationalist racists wearing Rorschach masks and mask-wearing cops (who stay hidden to protect their identity after many of them were slaughtered on a Christmas Eve attack three years prior). 

But first the series opens with a restaging of the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa — also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921 — in which white residents went on a murderous rampage against black residents and businesses. The connection between that incident and the 2019 storyline gradually becomes clearer, with King playing the central figure of Det. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night, one of the few surviving officers to return to the job (like the others and new recruits, she wears a mask and has a superhero adjacent moniker). Add this turn to the long list of superb King performances.

Again, the series will be utterly confusing (if visually astonishing) for newbies unless they brush up on their Watchmen backstory. That's because the new series includes both references to and appearances by the superheroes of the original — including Irons as Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, Doctor Manhattan, Silk Spectre and others. If you didn't know that an alien squid landed on Manhattan and prevented World War III, that the United States won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon was never impeached (he actually served into the 1980s and was succeeded by Robert Redford, who is still president), or that even though it's 2019 there's no internet or cellphones and tobacco is illegal, then you should probably do a little homework.

This is where it will get interesting for HBO growing fans beyond the Watchmen base. People regularly forget what happened the previous season on a show they loved, so people with a cursory knowledge of Watchmen might find themselves wondering what's from the source material and what Lindelof has added or winked at (and there's a lot of the latter). There were certainly several instances where it was unclear if new characters had superpowers and were connected to the original in some way, or were just creative new additions. And since the Watchmen universe featured a number of heroes who were already the second iteration of someone else (Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre II, etc.), it can all get a little fuzzy.

Ultimately, getting into the minutiae will be for uber fans. Everybody else will probably just roll with the joyfully creative explosion of weirdness that sits within Lindelof's Watchmen. It's 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.

Ah, about that longer run. When Lindelof said (or let slip?) that Watchmen might only be a single-season one-off, with a complete and satisfying end, it raised some questions. He also said he might not work on the second season if there is one. Both of those notions seem to be hedging bets. The world-building that went into this first season absolutely needs to keep going (unless, as stated, all hell breaks loose and characters get killed off in those last episodes). HBO also needs this and no doubt wants this to go longer. In all honesty, after watching the first six installments it seems inconceivable that it can all be wrapped up tidily with three additional hours. 

Part of that is because those first six hours leave you wanting more not just of King and Nelson, who deliver exceptional, memorable performances, but also Smart, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau and Tom Mison, to name just four — and there might not be enough runway left in one season to fulfill that desire. 

Maybe that's where Watchmen will work best with newbies — even if there's confusion over characters, the characters themselves are enthralling. Does it all work? Well, let's just say that it's creatively bold and superbly written and acted, but those last three episode will be crucial to it all making sense if there's no second season. Watchmen is a tour de force, no doubt, but there's a landing that definitely needs to be stuck.

Cast: Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers, James Wolk, Hong Chau, Adelaide Clemens, Andrew Howard, Jacob Ming-Trent
Created for television by: Damon Lindelof
Written by: Damon Lindelof
Pilot directed by: Nicole Kassell
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)