HBO has released their one-season Watchmen show developed by Damon Lindelof, a sequel to the seminal 1985 comic book by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons. In honor of that release (which is appallingly well timed given the show’s discourse on race relations), and also to show you what you’re missing by not being on my Patreon, here’s the review I wrote for my Patreon in January of this year. Supporters get movie reviews ($1/month), cat pictures ($2/month), TV reviews like this one ($5/month), weekly excerpts of a work in progress ($7/month), monthly vignettes featuring my original characters ($10/month), and first looks at my first drafts ($20/month). Give it a shot!
Between its being optioned for the screen in 1988 and the release of the 2009 film based on it, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons went through a number of different attempts to adapt it. One of the directors attached to it was the great Terry Gilliam, who famously declared the seminal, hugely influential twelve-issue miniseries to be “unfilmable.”
Then Zack Snyder went and filmed it for a movie that was deeply flawed, but at least a noble effort. One choice Snyder made was to keep the story set in 1985, just as the comic story was. In the case of the original, it was meant to be the present day—or, rather, an alternate present day, since the existence of costumed heroes in general and the powerful Dr. Manhattan in particular changed the course of history. But because so much of it tied to historical events (most notably the Vietnam War), Snyder decided not to jump the timeline.
Damon Lindelof has made a fascinating decision with his Watchmen TV series on HBO: he has set it in the present day, but he isn’t adapting the comic book—he’s done a sequel to it instead.
It’s unprecedented, I believe, for a screen adaptation to serve as a direct sequel to a comic book, where the first part of the story is in comic book form and the continuation on screen. It’s gone the other way lots of times. Shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jericho, Farscape (your humble reviewer worked on that one), Dark Angel, and The 4400 have continued in other media, whether comic books or novels, after the shows themselves ended.
Yet here we are.
And it’s fucking brilliant.
HBO’s Watchmen takes place in 2019, but it’s the 2019 that is thirty-five years after a giant squid materialized in New York City, which was believed to be an alien invasion, and which united the world’s governments against this possible alien threat. While costumed heroes are outlawed, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma has adopted a policy of masking their police force. A white supremacist group, who have patterned themselves after Rorschach, went after members of the Tulsa Police Department in their homes, so they adopted a policy where all uniformed officers wear face masks and all plainclothes police wear costumes and take on super heroic identities. This protects the cops.
The main character of HBO’s Watchmen is Angela Abar, a detective in the Tulsa PD whose heroic ID is Sister Night, a religious themed hero based on a blaxploitation film that Abar was a fan of as a kid growing up in Vietnam (the fifty-first state in this future). Regina King plays her with verve and dignity and skill.
The most impressive thing about Lindelof’s sequel is that it is an impressive discourse on racism. The season opens with a dramatization of the Tulsa “Black Wall Street” massacre of 1921, an actual historical event that this TV show has probably educated large numbers of people about. One of the most revolting acts of racism in U.S. history, the massacre also leads us nicely to one of the best retcons I’ve ever seen.
In the original comic book, the first costumed hero was Hooded Justice, whose face was completely covered, and who wore a noose around his neck. HJ’s true identity was never revealed—though many believed it was a German strongman—but Lindelof reveals it in this miniseries as a black officer in the NYPD, one who was almost lynched by his fellow (white) officers. HJ’s noose is the rope he was almost hanged with (the cops didn’t finish the job as they wouldn’t go quite so far as to kill a fellow officer, but they wanted to teach him a lesson nonetheless), with the costumed hero able to dispense the justice that a racist world won’t permit him to deal with as a cop.
That’s not the only manner in which Lindelof runs with a notion from the comic book. He very much takes to heart Dr. Manhattan’s words to Adrian Veidt about how things never actually end. Jeremy Irons is one of four actors who play older versions of characters from the comic. (Two of the others are Louis Gossett Jr. as the elderly Hooded Justice and Jean Smart giving the performance of a lifetime as a bitter, older Laurie Juspeczyk, who goes by Laurie Blake, and about whom I’ll say more in a bit. The fourth I can’t reveal, as it’s a genuine spoiler. I’m not a spoiler-phobe by any stretch of the imagination, but this particular revelation needs to be revealed as you go.) Irons’s Veidt is just as brilliant, but also older and exhausted. He’s had to maintain the illusion that Earth is in danger from extradimensional aliens and he feels underappreciated, mainly because he has to keep his greatest achievement (preventing nuclear war) a secret (because he killed millions to do it). We spend much of the season with Veidt seemingly trapped in a country estate, though the truth of it comes out over the course of the season and it’s delightful, actually based in an positive experience a young Dr. Manhattan had when he and his father were emigrating to the U.S.
A lot of the brilliance of the original comic is the world-building that Moore and Gibbons did, particularly all the small touches, like electric cars forty years early to fast-food chains that would result from different immigration patterns. Lindelof carries this forward, not just with things like Vietnam as a state or Robert Redford being president, but Redford also granting black people reparations for slavery (“Redfordations,” as they’re derisively called by racists, who sound eerily familiar in their complaints) and New York being, basically, a ghost town, its tourism industry in the toilet because nobody wants to visit a place where an alien materialized out of nowhere and killed millions.
A lot of the brilliance of the TV series is its discoursing on racism and sexism and lots of other things that Moore—whatever his many virtues as a writer—never really got into. An upper-middle-class white fella from the UK, neither black people nor women ever figured particularly prominently in his work in any kind of light other than sidekicks, tokens, or love interests.
In addition, Lindelof does something that Moore and Gibbons also did supremely well, which is non-linear storytelling, and clever use of flashbacks—both normally in the sense of memory and in a more bizarre way thanks to the unique perception of time that Dr. Manhattan has—to reveal things. “A God Walks Into Abar” may be the best episode of television this year, brilliantly telling the story of two characters’ entire romance in a way that is totally Watchmen, and yet probably never would have happened in Watchmen (for reasons I outlined above). And “This Extraordinary Being” likewise tells the story of Hooded Justice in a manner that is unflinching and brilliant—and depressingly resonant today. (It’s not a coincidence that the racist supermarket owner who gets away with assaulting a black man has the first name of Fred. Our white supremacist president’s father was a supermarket owner named Fred.)
And holy crap the acting. Just some amazing work here. I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about King’s work as Sister Night, and she’s just the tip of the iceberg. Irons’s Veidt is stellar, Don Johnson continues his late-career renaissance playing skeevy middle-aged white guys, Tom Mison and Sara Vickers do superb work as the numerous servants in Veidt’s weird prison, Gossett Jr. is his usual brilliant self, James Wolk oozes slimy Southern charm as Senator Joe Keene, Hong Chau is stellar as Lady Trieu, and Smart, as I said, knocks it out of the park as the cynical Laurie Blake—who, I’m convinced, is now going by that name solely so the actors don’t have to wrap their tongues around “Juspeczyk.” That is, to my mind, a cowardly choice, and it also leans into one of the more offensive elements of the comic, which is Laurie deciding, after finding out that the guy who raped her mother is her biological father, to be more like him for some stupid reason.
The two standouts, though, are Yayha Abdul-Mateen II and Tim Blake Nelson. The only thing I’d seen Abdul-Mateen II in before was another DC adaptation, Aquaman, in which he was abysmal as Black Manta, so I was particularly blown away by his subtle and elegant performance as Sister Night’s husband Cal. Nelson I’ve been a fan of since his hilarious work on the short-lived spy thriller TV show Chaos, and he beautifully plays Looking Glass’s PTSD (he was near New York when the alien materialized, but he was in a House of Mirrors at a carnival, which protected him from the worst of the psychic effects, so he survived). What I particularly like is that it’s a refreshingly understated PTSD, coming out in routine and an impressively calm paranoia. It’s a bravura performance by Nelson.
The original comic is pretty much part of my DNA—I first read it in college, and I’ve reread it so many times in the three decades since I’ve pretty much got it memorized. So I have no way of knowing if someone who hasn’t read it will respond to this series. I’m pretty sure it would still work as a great piece of television as everything about it is just brilliantly acted, written, constructed, and directed. Just as the original used alternate history to provide cogent commentary on the Cold War, this sequel does the same to provide cogent commentary on the history of race relations in this country. And it tells a flipping good yarn on top of that. I can’t recommend this series highly enough.
Watchmen is available on HBO.