The first episode of HBO's Watchmen delivers much of what viewers might expect of a series inspired by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' landmark graphic novel, published in 12 issues across 1986 and 1987. We see references to some old, familiar characters, some masked vigilantes fighting crime, an action scene featuring an airship inspired by an old hero, and even an apparent intrusion from another dimension related to the book's strange, apocalyptic ending.
The original Watchmen imagined an alternate version of our 1985 in which masked adventurers and a possibly all-powerful superbeing have nudged history in a slightly different direction but done little to pull it back from the possibility of nuclear apocalypse that hung so heavily over the last years of the Cold War. The book gives anyone attempting to follow it up a richly realized world on which to build, but it's the ways in which this new series diverges from the source material that makes it so compelling (based on the first six, of nine total, episodes supplied by HBO for review). Created by Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), Watchmen imagines not only what might have happened in Watchmen's world between 1985 and 2019, but what kind of people inhabit it and how living in the aftermath of an averted apocalypse would break some, embolden others, and lead a few to try to blow it all up anyway.
It's not an easy task. Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen works beautifully as a self-contained story (down to an ending made more powerful by remaining unresolved), and for a long time it seemed like it would stay that way. Movie adaptations fizzled out for years until Zack Snyder took a shot with a 2009 film that divided viewers but stayed remarkably faithful to the book, at least up to a point. In 2012, against Moore's wishes, DC Comics published a series of prequels under the Before Watchmen banner with mixed results. Even Lindelof half-apologized in a long open letter filled with autobiographical details before embarking on the project, which he referred to as a "remix" (and a respectful "F You" to Moore). That word doesn't quite suit the series, however. Its closest corollary might be Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money, a sequel to The Hustler that honors the original but diverges from it wildly in style and tone and uses a preexisting world as a playground for another creator's personal obsessions.
For Lindelof that means using it as a device to tell a slow-unfolding, mystery-filled story loaded with explorations of philosophy and politics. (It's also a story that benefits from not knowing that much about it, so this review will be light on spoilers.) For this Watchmen, the action largely takes place not in the New York of the graphic novel but in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city whose importance has swelled in the decades since the billionaire genius Adrian Veidt dropped what appeared to be a giant squid on New York, killing millions but tricking the world into uniting to face an otherworldly threat. It makes sense for other reasons as well. The series opens not in the Tulsa of 2019 but the Tulsa of 1921, when the city became the site of the Tulsa race massacre, a weekend-long incident that culminated with white rioters destroying the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood (also known as Black Wall Street), even attacking it by air. That violence resonates throughout the series, in ways specific to its characters and setting but also in its concern with racism in America, which remains as much unsettled business in the series' world as in ours.
That's a problem for the Tulsa police, headed by Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), who lose one of their own to members of the 7th Kavalry, a racist mask-clad militia who don masks inspired by the dead vigilante Rorschach. The group has a history that includes an incident so violent it's led the police force to wear masks to protect their ability to work without retribution. It's a problem for the masked vigilantes who assist the police as well. These include Angela Abar (Regina King), a former police officer who now fights alongside them as the masked Sister Night, and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), who wears a mirrored mask and specializes in using technology and psychology to interrogate prisoners. But the reason for the 7th Kavalry's resurgence eludes him, as does the solution to the murder that ends the episode, and eventually comes to turn upside down everything Angela and Looking Glass believed to be true.
The murder at the center of the story provides another tie to Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen, which opened with an unsolved murder. So does the series' tendency to create connections through editing on rhyming images and using narration from one character to illuminate the actions of another. The series also builds on the world of the book in fascinating ways. Jeremy Irons plays an aged Veidt who lives in a mansion filled with steampunk gizmos where he's attended to by unnervingly compliant servants (whose origin provides the series with one of its creepiest details). Is he still scheming? Has his brilliance curdled into madness? Will he attempt to save the world by destroying a huge portion of it yet again? An offhand reference to Robert Redford as a potential political candidate in the novel has led to a world in which Redford has become president. It's also one in which liberal overreach — tobacco is outlawed and the police have to plead for permission to use guns on a case-by-case basis — has turned Redford's disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, into an idol for the aggrieved.
Other elements don't surface until later episodes. One, which takes place largely in flashback, fills in the blanks regarding one of the original series' most mysterious characters. And it would be unfair to say too much about who she plays (though that detail is out there for the curious) or what's become of the character, but suffice it to say that Jean Smart proves to be as much a standout here as on Fargo and Legion via a sharp, multifaceted performance that's funny, mean, and melancholy — sometimes all at once. (Also notable in roles it's not yet fair to talk about: Louis Gossett Jr. and Hong Chau.)
Smart's not the only one who gets room to dig into complex characters. Nelson plays Looking Glass as a man whose abilities and stoic attitude can't quite hide the ways he's broken inside. And though an ensemble piece, the story always circles back to Angela, and King plays her beautifully as a woman determined to work for justice who has to continually reevaluate what that means. Sometimes that's because of what she encounters in the present, but just as often she finds the ground shifting beneath her feet because of what she uncovers about the past, both her own and Tulsa's — which connect in ways she'd never previously considered.
Watchmen's world differs from ours. Beyond its superheroes and squid-induced catastrophes it's conspicuously free of cell phones and other digital devices, suggesting what 2019 might look like without those transformative devices. (Newsstands are still going strong, for starters.) But, like the book that inspired it, it's the ways Lindelof and his team of writers and directors use this unknown to comment on the world we know that makes it so compelling. Where the novel's world threatened to teeter into nuclear apocalypse, it's division, subterranean political movements, and hateful ideology that trouble the world of the series, pushing it to the edge of disaster with only groups of troubled, conflicted, and confused heroes standing in the way — just like before, and yet not like before at all. This isn't the same Watchmen all over again. It's a Watchmen custom-fitted for the times at hand.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Watchmen premieres Sunday, Oct. 20 at 9/8c on HBO.