“Is this death?” asks a character in the inky-black opening scene of BBC America’s fantasy police dramedy The Watch, addressing a hooded figure whose only visible attributes are his pointed claws, his gleaming sword and his glowing, blue-hued not-quite-eyes. “Obviously,” deadpans Death (voiced by an unseen Wendell Pierce). It’s not the stylized Grim Reaper that unnerves, but the ease with which the deceased man, police chief Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer), accepts his bleak destiny.
Adapted — too loosely for some — from author Terry Pratchett’s 41-book Discworld series, The Watch’s eight-part debut season takes place “somewhere in a distant secondhand dimension.” First-time visitors to Discworld (such as myself) might well find showrunner Simon Allen’s introduction to the show’s dirt-streaked, quasi-dystopian, urban-desert setting (shot in South Africa) initially disorienting, even with Death giving Vimes — and us — a “this was your life” lecture. Don’t expect Game of Thrones-style genre restraint, with that show’s once-a-season dragons and never-seen-again smoke monster. Here be dwarves, goblins, werewolves, The Thing-like rock cops, talking swords (voiced by What We Do in the Shadows’ Matt Berry) and spells that compel mortal enemies to become dancing partners shimmying to Wham!
Compared to the show’s imaginative world-building (and apparently lavish budget), the plots are crushingly rote and uninvolving. Vimes is a standard-issue fictional cop: a hard-bitten drunk with more repressed trauma than Bruce Wayne. Tiny terror Corporal Angua (Marama Corlett) and gentle giantess Constable Cheery (the gender-fluid Jo Eaton-Kent) were happy enough to follow their chief’s lazy lead. But the arrival of an earnest rookie (Adam Hugill) among the Watchers (as the police are called), the sudden death of one of their own and fresh righteousness borrowed from the vigilante Lady Ramkin (Lara Rossi) force Vimes and his small squad out of their inertia. The only problem: Murder, robbery and presumably all other crimes are actually legal in the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, protected as professions by guilds dedicated to paid assassinations, staged muggings and the like.
That’s enough complication for an episodic series like this one, but of course there’s a larger storyline in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, with an unlikely personal connection to Vimes in the form of his childhood best friend Carcer (Sam Adewunmi). Because its dramatic beats are so familiar, The Watch is much more engaging when it leans into its lighter, funnier moments, especially when it’s winkingly mocking its own stylistic excesses. The frequently passed-out Vimes fends off a petty criminal in one hilariously macabre scene in which she expresses disappointment that he’s still alive — she’s got a friend whose gig is putting on “dancing corpses for kids’ birthday parties.”
The third installment, in which the Watchers go undercover as rock musicians for reasons, is particularly silly — and arguably the most enjoyable of the five episodes submitted for review, not least because costume designers Colleen Kelsall and Dihantus Engelbrecht finally get to go full tilt in their Mad Max-meets-Star Wars-meets-sculptural-whimsy creations.
With its nonstop spectacle and movement, the show offers too much to look at and too much happening for the viewer to ever get fully bored. But even with the end of the world on the table, a weightlessness pervades the proceedings, especially with episodes devoted to finding a book, which leads to a dragon, which means finding a sword, sometimes with the help of a glass chamber that aids telepathy. The Watch is a mostly newbie-friendly initiation into the Discworld universe, but other than its supernatural larks, it fails to convey the magic that’s kept audiences coming back for decades.
Cast: Samuel Adewunmi, Marama Corlett, Richard Dormer, Jo Eaton-Kent, Adam Hugill, Lara Rossi, Wendell Pierce
Showrunner: Simon Allen
Premieres Sunday, Jan. 3, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America