There has been a lot of talk about Watchmen getting its own TV show ever since HBO announced David Lindelof would be writing and producing. On the one hand, Lindelof has proven how every good he is at creating complex narratives that’ll get you talking; on the other, he said “F*ck Alan Moore” when asked about the comic series. It’s quite obvious HBO is taking the series in a new direction thanks to the trailers we’ve seen so far, and after watching the first episode it’s clearly inspired by the comic, but not anywhere close to an adaptation. Call it a spiritual sequel if you will, as it’s in line with the chaotic, unsafe world Watchmen where doomsday was ever-present. For that reason, this show feels incredibly poignant and well-timed given the nationalist uprising in America as well as the constant fear of police brutality, and the rising tide of violence in America today.
The premiere episode opens on an old silent film revealing a black hero of the south. It’s a well-done rendition of the over-the-top black and white silent pictures that permeated the country in the early 1900s. It cuts to a black boy enjoying the film until a bang startles him. Soon we realize an all-out war between the KKK and the black townsfolk is taking place outside. Death and chaos are the only constants outside and it’s a harrowing, depressing display of society crumbling. As the boy and his parents attempt to flee it’s quite clear the boy who was just cheering for a black hero in a silent picture enacting justice now has a new idea of justice and what is right and wrong in the world. The episode bookends well with this opening, revealing another layer to a major character of the series.
As the episode progresses we meet Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), a police chief who seems to have a good head on his shoulders; Angela Abar (Regina King), who is the elite supercop who fights under him; and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), another masked cop who works closely with Crawford. We’re introduced to a world where cops have to call in to request access to their locked guns even when on patrol, where cops keep their faces masked to protect their identities, and where the “good guys” have convinced themselves it’s okay to torture. There are rules, but these rules can be broken. It’s a fascinating take since we subtly know all along the way that this world is based on what happened after the original Watchmen story finished 30 some odd years prior. Lindelof, who writes this episode, basically postulates what would happen to America if that series finished and we see how demented the America we love has become.
The villains of the story are The Seventh Cavalry, white supremacists who fight against the police force because of the control and law they exhibit. This group wears Rorschach masks likely because they believe in a chaotic world much like that hero once did. They are a group that fights against what has been building, likely from Ozymandias’ plot, and they are a direct reaction to being manipulated by a masked justice. Speaking of Ozymandias, it is not yet clear if Jeremy Irons is playing the hero-turned-villain, but there’s a good hint at that. There are clues surrounding who he really is and if it truly is Ozymandias, it’s fascinating to see him secluded on some kind of estate seemingly passing the time with his bizarre staff for no real purpose. One might wonder that if he really did pull off the plan that ended the Watchmen comic, maybe he has no purpose.
The world depicted in this first episode is dark and mysterious, but when it’s bright it’s also complex mixing perceptions well. Take for instance when heroes are on screen. Angela plays a black-masked hero who rushes to beat up a racist living in Nixonville; as she drives, cool music plays. Later, Looking Glass interrogates the same man in an interesting interrogation room that projects imagery to somehow elicit answers. Again, cool music plays to hype the fact that what we’re seeing is good guy stuff. Immediately after this scene, we see the same man being interrogated now being tortured behind a closed door. The show forces you to ponder what is right and wrong, as if that opening silent picture was a joke in itself, in its message that justice could ever be served so easily.
That music mentioned above has a strong Nine Inch Nails vibe, thanks to Trent Reznor supplying the music with Atticus Ross. The music was without a doubt well orchestrated throughout the episode. Editing was also strong by David Eisenberg, with some exquisite transitions. One example was a shot that panned up to the stars, then dissolved into an ocean shot as if it was black asphalt only to continue panning onto a lush green countryside.
Fans of the comic book may be wondering how much of the show ties into the comics, and while it’s not overt, it’s all there for fans to piece together. At one point Judd flies in a ship that looks very similar to Nite Owl’s flying ship, Dr. Manhattan is seen destroying a castle on Mars on a news program, and in what appears to be an animated TV show commercial, we see all the classic Watchmen superheroes being introduced. It suits the show that these references to the original source material are subtle or in the background due to it taking place years later. All these nods are satisfying in their own right, hinting at there being more to come while also not overshadowing what the show is doing.
There is certainly enough here to dig into and get your interest up, but I will say the cliffhanger left me wanting. In some ways, this could have easily been a solid 1-hour movie since it has a nice bookend to the opening while giving us a taste of what the world is like. There are no grand supervillains to defeat or major plots by the villains to squash. It has simply introduced conflict on a societal level and set things up, but I’m still waiting for the major hook of the show to kick into gear.
All things considered, I enjoyed this first episode. It lays the groundwork for the temperature of this society while introducing strong lead characters. I will say it doesn’t do quite enough to have you dying for more, but as a mystery box-type show, it certainly has you asking a lot of questions. Much like Lindelof’s Lost, this show makes you ask questions and thus drives you to keep watching while on the edge of our seat. I know I will be.