It’s 1921 and a race-crime rises to the level of wholesale massacre as Tulsa is torn apart by attacks that will cast a shadow down the decades… and a young boy survives a day he will never forget.
It’s 1985, Nixon is still President, the Watergate scandal never happened and the world stands at the brink of war. A genius madman kills his former team-mates one by one… and then thousands of innocent bystanders in a purposeful and long co-ordinated plot to secretly save the world from itself…
It’s 2019 and America has somehow managed to survive but hardly thrive. Vietnam is the 51st state, Robert Redford has now been president for thirty years, race-based reparations for past atrocities mean black people don’t pay taxes, guns are largely banned (even to many of the police) and the law-enforcers hide their faces and identities behind masks after devastating attacks by the ‘Seventh Cavalry’ agitants… and the armies of order and anarchy threaten the various shades of the American dream whichever side you’re on.
And other forces are gathering, connected and disconnected by time, geography, age, perception, fury and anger. The fate of the world may once again be in the balance and this time, masks and skin-colour may only be the touch-paper of a far more explosive set of agendas…
The clock is ticking again…
You don’t have to be a fan of comics to be aware of Watchmen. In the 1980s it revolutionised the format with a visually complex, deeply layered story about power, paranoia, revenge and salvation… and forever buried the notion that comics could only ever be for kids. The 12-part masterwork, subsequently collected as a graphic novel that has remained on prestigious literary best-selling lists for decades, was the work of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, names now legendary in the medium.
Though Gibbons’ name is listed as a consultant, you won’t find Alan Moore’s credit anywhere on HBO‘s Watchmen adaptation. Moore infamously divested himself of any interests after bad-dealings with Hollywood and has been known to invoke legal means should anyone use his name in publicity. However, it would be churlish and counter-productive not to cite his name here. Moore’s words and Gibbons’ art were perfectly balanced and each essential elements of an epic story that celebrated not just classic science-fiction but the very nature of the printed comics medium. To even attempt to move it to other media, such as the screen, was, Moore argued, high folly if not a high-crime. Even high-concept auteurs like Terry Gilliam eventually agreed it was too much to compact down to a two-three hour one-sitting experience. When Zack Snyder did eventually make the feature-film in 2009 he did a better job than some expected but his over-reverential take arguably presented Moore’s basic arguments in high definition. Without the 2D tricks of the trade (strategic panel layouts and fearful symmetry reflecting story elements), the live-action adaptation merely became something of a ponderous affair.
So when news came in 2018 that there would be a Watchmen series coming from HBO, and Damon Lindelof (LOST, The Leftovers) would helm it, there was a decidedly mixed reaction, one not calmed by the announcement that this would not actually be the Watchmen story we knew but a new experience based on the style, ideas and some of the characters therein. It would not be quite a prequel or sequel per se…. but could it ever hope to be an equal? Some, indeed many, felt that taking the name and doing something different was somewhere between blatant opportunism and abject hubris. Then again, the counterargument went, hadn’t Moore himself done exactly that – repurposed old comic and literary characters for his own myth-making and to hell with the original intent?
The only real answer was to watch HBO‘s Watchmen and find out if the production lived up to Lindelof’s promises or down to fans’ tempered expectations… and your opinion of the show that debuted on HBO in the US on Sunday and on the UK’s Sky Atlantic a day later, may well depend on your knowledge (or lack of it) going in.
In a result that certainly draws considerably from the original story (and to a lesser extent the style of the Snyder movie), but feels no reason to be totally beholden to either, Lindelof, director Nicole Kassell and HBO have – against the odds – succeeded in creating a thematic follow-up that positively hums with bonafide high-brow ambition… and that’s rare in even this golden age of television. And like it or loathe it (one suspects Moore will be in the latter category by default) it’s a unique result that almost defies easy category. Those who prematurely write it off as a fool’s errand adaptation or casually decry the endeavour merely because of its comic-book-origins will do themselves no service in their boycott or derision. It’s entirely possible to not like it, to think it tries too hard, juggles too many concepts and is tonally difficult to get a handle upon, but one would have to be particularly stubborn to dismiss the actual result as a wholesale failure… because it’s undeniably powerful, sweepingly stylish and full to the brim with righteous fury and mystery. It’s also historically poignant, more than a touch surreal and yet arguably one-part utterly different and one-part as culturally-important today as the original comic was to the particular vibe of the 1980s.
It’s the kind of show you may want to watch more than once before truly deciding its worth – and in an ever-disposable modern landscape that’s saying something.
Though designed to work as something independent of what has gone before, it will work best with those with at least a passing idea of the original Watchmen blueprint – a ton of references and easter-eggs litter much of the connective tissue of ‘how we got here‘ and even die-hards will have to make some effort to mentally fit pieces together (patterns are only beginning to form and might take the entire mini-series to come together). Hitting the ground running in this askew world isn’t essential but will certainly help.
If paranoia was the main ingredient of the 1980s story, race-relations form the backbone here. And, arguably the master-stroke here comes in the opening minutes where Lindelof’s story opens in Tulsa in 1921 and the site of a sadly all-too-true racially-driven massacre (one that it’s likely a majority of Americans have never even heard about or simply noted as a historical footnote rather the massive atrocity it was). Those events may seem a century away from the events that follow, but the story shows that there’s a through-line, however invisible some of the key threads remain as yet. Racial divisions define an American tale with an (eventually) alternate history than ours, where Nixon retained power for longer because no Watergate scandal ever made it to the presses and yet in the wake of events in the 1980s that took the US and Russia to the brink of nuclear war, one where Robert Redford became and remained President for decades. But while the milestones are different, the footnotes are not.
Watchmen 2019 almost has too much to say and while amazing on a variety of levels, there’s no proof yet that Lindelof has the assured touch of Moore’s hugely important big picture concepts and wider landscaping – something that can and will only be judged by time and distance. There’s a tinderbox at work here and pointed coverage of the absurdities of taking Left or Right ideology too far. Far Right conservatives will chortle and gesticulate at the depiction of a country where there’s a six month wait for guns and even the police have to ask official permission before drawing their locked weapons. But the Far Left will point to the violent vigilantes, the rise of unchecked white supremacists and the danger of tolerating or ignoring their threat. Lindelof’s script deftly skewers both with both a pen and a lens sharpened and cleaned for the purpose.
Regina King as Angela Abar – ‘baker’ by day, something else by night – is central to the story and grabs the potential of her complex character – both physical and psychological – and runs with it. But she’s ably supported in the opener by the likes of Jeremy Irons as the presumed-dead Osymandias and an unexpectedly nuanced and compelling performance from Don Johnson as Angela’s mentor chief lawman Judd Crawford.
The opening episode resonates with the ticking clock of Watchmen but also feels like Roots by way of The Purge, Orwell’s 1984 orchestrated to the soundtrack of an alternative Oklahoma! with all the contradictions built-therein. For once, the seams between are not obscured, but fully embraced, spotlighted and then brought together in high definition.
‘Who’s Reading the Watchmen?’ DC‘s current attempts to produce a kind of Watchmen sequel on the printed page has been riddled with production problems including months of delays and resulting contradictions and frustrations that really do nothing to enhance its legacy. But ‘Who’s watching the Watchmen?’ That’s a different and far more satisfying question.
For the moment, whatever your view of the result, it’s anyone who cares about ambitious television…
- Story / Writing9