Review: HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ an engaging, original series

by James Cronin | 11/1/19 2:09am

“Watchmen” seems like HBO’s first attempt at a replacement TV show for “Game of Thrones.” Even before the disappointing finale of “Game of Thrones” which aired this May, it seems HBO has been clamoring to produce a new hit show to keep their subscribers. My verdict on whether or not “Watchmen” has the ability to do just that is — being only two episodes into the season — hard to say, but it’s at least off to a good start. 

“Watchmen” is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel of the same name. Moore’s “Watchmen” was a satire, a deconstruction of the concept of superheroes. The television series follows the events of the graphic novel, but takes place over 30 years later in the present day and focuses on racial tensions in Tulsa, OK. Having read the graphic novel, I understood some of the more zany details of the gritty “Watchmen” world, but I was still at a loss for much of the past two episodes. However, the feeling was quite nice. Even being familiar with the story’s dark take on what superheroes would be like in real life, I was constantly intrigued by what each new scene revealed about the fictional world created on the screen.

Produced by Damon Lindelof of “Lost” and “The Leftovers” fame, it’s clear that HBO has not taken any shortcuts in making “Watchmen,” putting top creators on the project. HBO spends an estimated $2.5 billion a year on content, and clearly, “The Watchmen” received a sizable budget from those dedicated funds. The set-pieces and CGI are as good as any other big-budget show on TV. The music is great too, which makes sense seeing as it’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from the Nine Inch Nails who handle the score for the show. Overall, the effort put into “Watchmen” shines through — all of which is highlighted by good production. 

The characters, as well as the performances the actors have delivered, are intriguing, and I’m interested to see in what direction Lindelof directs them. Regina King plays the lead role, Angela Abar, also known as Sister Knight, and does a great job with it. She previously worked with Lindelof on “The Leftovers,” but I have not seen that show, so I only knew her as the voice of Riley and Huey on Adult Swim’s animated show “The Boondocks.” King most certainly does not disappoint in live-action. Tim Blake Nelson, of multiple Coen brothers’ movies fame, is also present, and he does a great job at playing a deadpan vigilante named Looking Glass. Other important actors in the show, like Don Johnson and Jeremy Irons, are great when shown, but their appearances have been intentionally sparse thus far. 

“Watchmen” is not an easy show to synthesize. It’s incredibly political, but that’s all I really feel that I’m equipped to say at this point. I have no idea to which direction it leans as of now. The show seems to paint both liberals and conservatives in a bad light at times and I don’t think I, or anyone, can really classify what kind of statement Lindelof is making. Perhaps viewers will know when the season has run its course. In the first 15 minutes of the first episode, a cop is shot and killed because, in the seemingly hyper-liberal political landscape of the show’s world, cops have to radio their headquarters in order to get permission to draw their weapon from its mechanical holster. At this point, viewers would probably think the show is making a statement about gun control, but then it is revealed that the murderer was a member of an alt-right, white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalary. A police officer dies because of liberal gun laws but is killed by the exact kind of conservative person who would consider such a law an infringment on their rights. It simultaneously paints liberal ideals and conservative extremists in a bad light. 

There are plenty of other contradicting and conflicting messages the show throws at me, such that every time I think I have gotten a good sense of where the show is going, a new concept or piece of information that completely negates all my previous ideas is introduced into the mix. I enjoy this about the show because it’s bold. It pushes boundaries and makes me question what exactly is going on in every scene. This aspect of the show kept me constantly stimulated as I tried to figure out what the subtext was. The writing is what keeps me enthralled — it’s fantastic.

I have also enjoyed the way the show approaches world-building. Lindelof drops the viewer into a drastically different version of America, in which it sometimes rains squids and the cell phone was never invented. There is no expository dialogue or convenient newscasting playing in the background to explain away the befuddlement whenever a new aspect of the world is introduced. The pilot presents the world as it is without any qualifiers. 

I came into the show with as much background knowledge as possible, and even I’m not spared from mild fits of confusion when I see something like paparazzi flying around in mechanical moth suits without any reason for why that’s considered normal in this world. 

I think this slow trickle of information about the world is fantastic, and it adds a greater sense of realism to the show as well. Why should I be familiar with the world of the show just on account of having read the books? Thirty years have passed. That’s a ton of time, and I’m glad the world has evolved. I respect Lindelof for doing something new with the story and not sticking to crowd-pleasing references from the source material. 

“Watchmen” has my attention. While its premiere wasn’t the most exciting pilot I’ve ever seen, the series has shown enough promise that I’ll see it through to the end. Lindelof has demonstrated his proficiency as a showrunner, and the writing is some of the freshest I’ve seen on television in a long time. I recommend “Watchmen,” but may suggest waiting to start it until you have a large block of empty time to binge-watch.