In the US: Sundays, 9pm, HBO
In the UK: Mondays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic
Back when The Umbrella Academy came out, I wrote this about Watchmen:
Alan Moore’s Watchmen is probably the best, most influential superhero comic of all time. An examination of the underlying assumptions and psychology of people who would put on masks to fight crime, it almost single-handedly (bar Denny O’Neil) made superheroes ‘real’ – or about as realistic as they ever could be, of course.
But it’s a very dense text and while you can remove certain elements of it relatively easily – bye, bye pirates! – try to unpick it too much and you lose Watchmen‘s intrinsic field: what makes Watchmen what it is. Small wonder then that Hollywood spent forever trying to adapt it before essentially making a frame by frame adaptation of the comic, just with a slightly different McGuffin.
That density of writing means that despite its influence being felt throughout comics and TV, there have been very few straight-on ‘homages’ (aka rip-offs). Nobody has done ‘Watchmen in space’, ‘Watchmen on Middle Earth’ or anything else.
One of the other reasons it’s so rarely adapted is it’s a “sacred text”. So perfect is it considered, no element of it can be removed or changed without true believers getting the hump. Even Zach Snyder’s movie version, which was virtually a frame for frame adaptation of the graphic novel, ended up getting into hot water for changing the ending.
To be fair, it was both a better ending than the graphic novel’s and a necessary adaptation, given the first season finale of Heroes had already used it. But it tampered with the good book, so it was excommunicated.
Faithfully unfaithful to Watchmen
This leads to a problem.
You could do utterly faithful adaptations and get into trouble with the only people who care, but why bother – everyone might as well just read the book.
You could do something that’s an adaptation but doesn’t look like it at first, but why bother – everyone might as well read the book.
You could do really bad prequels that add nothing, but why bother – everyone might as well read the book.
You could do really bad sequels that add nothing, but why bother – everyone might as well read the book.
But HBO’s Watchmen seems to have hit on a solution.
Do something that is utterly different with almost nothing in common, yet something that is still clearly a sequel.
Watchmen is the brainchild of Damon Lindelof. Lindelof is still notorious as the author of Alien-ruining snoozefest prequel Prometheus and Lost – you know the thing on the island with the terrible ending? – but he’s been quietly redeeming himself on HBO with the wrist-slitting The Leftovers.
Maybe it’s not too surprising then that Watchmen is a sort of Watchmen meets The Leftovers. Set in 2019 yet also set in the same “universe” as the original Watchmen, Watchmen asks… well, it asks a lot of things, all related to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. What would that world would be like, 30 years after an alien psychic squid seemingly teleported into New York? With term limits removed, would Richard Nixon still be president or would we – for example – have a left-wing actor as his successor? How will the original Watchmen, Minutemen and co be remembered? How would all of Dr Manhattan’s technology be used? What kind of world would that be?
Central to the story is the dependably excellent Regina King (The Leftovers, American Crime). Born in Vietnam – now an American state – she used to be a cop, before she was shot in the line of duty. Now she lives in Tulsa in the US, where she makes cupcakes.
And is also secretly part of the police force. The US is now a society in which the police have to remain masked in order to save face from Rorschach-worshipping white supremacists, while their left-leaning president refuses to let them use guns except in extreme, red-tape-bound circumstances.
It’s raining squid, hallelujah
And that, more or less, is the plot to the first episode. We’re introduced to a few other characters, including author Jeremy Irons. We get flashbacks to the 1920s and a time when the Ku Klux Klan was committing genocide. But largely, it’s all Regina King, all the time, kicking butt, with the help of her sheriff dad (Don Johnson).
And that’s largely because we’re learning the rules and nature of this new world. All the cars are electric. Every so often, baby transdimensional squids fall from the sky and people have to wipe them off their cars. The police use airships. The TV is filled with dramatisations of the Minutemen’s adventures.
It’s all a very rich weaving of Watchmen‘s storylines as a background tapestry against which a seemingly completely new story is being told.
An unconnected sequel
You do have to sit back and admire the internalisation of Watchmen. This is a show that understands the original and knows it in detail without worshipping it.
But to what end, you might wonder? Is there any more point to this than simply adapting the original again.
So far, I’d say so. Moore’s story may be ‘thick’, but there are many things it doesn’t have time to cover. ‘Racial unrest’ during the 1960s might have be nodded at on a planning board as something masked vigilantes might have tried to stop, rather than help, but this Watchmen can look at it in a far more detailed way – and even feature a black superhero and why a black person might become a superhero.
Similarly, Moore’s reflexive left-wing tendencies didn’t really allow him to examine the left in the same way that it did the right. Watchmen does both.
And, of course, it’s a sequel. It tells us what we probably knew already – Adrian Veidt’s plan would have failed, perhaps in part because of Rorschach, perhaps because of human nature. Here, we learn a little about why, as well as what has happened to Manhattan and Veidt since.
(Or do we? Because if there’s anything we know about Veidt, it’s that he’s a planner and schemer. Who exactly is Irons playing, for example…?)
It’s early days, of course, so I imagine more revelations will come. It might even echo the original’s examination of ageing superheroes passing on the torch to a new generation. But the distance in years between the original and Watchmen means that Silk Spectre, Nite Owl and co are never going to be central to the ass-kicking. This is a new story about new characters, which is what a new show should be.
I was hugely impressed by the first episode, both by what it chose to do and by what it chose not to do. It’s imaginative, while faithful, and manages to be its own thing, while still being clearly of one with Watchmen. As well as well acted, it both looks and sounds great, too.
If you liked the original, watch this; if you’ve never read the original, you should have done – read the graphic novel or even watch the movie, then watch this.