The highly anticipated TV "adaptation" of DC's iconic Watchmen, which allows viewers to return to the alternate timeline of the original graphic novel but imagines a story set in the modern-day, has finally arrived. The critical response has been hugely positive.
The new story centers around Angela Abar (Regina King), a masked vigilante named Lady Night who lives with her family in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the 30 years since Ozymandias's horrific cosmic attack in the final issue of Watchmen, the world has continued to drift further and further down the strange path characters like the villain (real name Adrian Veidt), Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan started it down. Mutant squids occasionally rain from the sky--a phenomenon that is so common cities have their very own, completely run-of-the-mill alert system in place to let people know when they should pull their cars over or open their umbrellas. Streets are cleaned with specific vehicles for squid removal. Police wear masks and protect their identities after a coordinated attack (led by a white supremacist group called the 7th Kalvary) had them gunned down en masse in their homes.
Said white supremacist group has "appropriated," in the words of showrunner Damon Lindelof during the Watchmen panel following the screening, the iconography and talking points of Rorschach, whose manifesto was posthumously circulated after Veidt's attack back in the graphic novel.
The war between the police and the 7th Kalvary also involves the masked vigilante community, who have apparently sided with the police--but the real nature of their partnership and the specifics of the arrangement are left ambiguous. Watchmen never actually feels withholding, but it's decidedly cagey with the expository details. The world is familiar, in a way, but also entirely alien, and it's impossible to actually gauge what does and doesn't fall under the umbrella of normalcy, given the circumstances.
As with the original graphic novel, the devil is squarely in the details. In order to really piece together some semblance of understanding, you're left to pick out the subtleties--at one point, images flash in rapid-fire montage over the mirrored mask of a character named Looking Glass and there's the tiniest glimpse of a Mount Rushmore that includes Richard Nixon. Cops are no longer able to carry firearms freely and must instead adhere to a strict bureaucratic set of authorizations to allow them to even hold a weapon at all. Homes and neighborhoods look normal enough, but there's something just slightly off-kilter about the design and aesthetics. Televisions are all projections, cell phones are blocky and beeper like, cars are boxier. Characters casually make references to the statehood of Vietnam.
It's as engaging as it is mysterious, bolstered entirely by the wholesale commitment of the actors and the energy of the bass-thumping electronica of the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score. Regina King shines as Angela, who is so magnetic both in her domestic life and during the bone-crunching action of Lady Night that it feels impossible to look away from her, even for a second. King may never have a moment of full-on exposition monologuing during the pilot, but she makes her role and place in the story feel so lived-in that she never feels out of place and the details she offers never feel too vague.
All told, Watchmen seems like it's cut from the same cloth as some of the best sci-fi of recent years, surreal genre experiments like Cary Joji Fukunaga's Maniac, or fellow graphic novel adaptation Snowpiercer, while still feeling inexplicably grounded in reality. The world itself may be alien, but the issues--the struggle against authority, the proliferation of white supremacy and the systems where it is able to grow and thrive--are anything but.
Visually, it's stunning. Symbolism and symmetry take center stage even in the most mundane shots, giving the entire episode an unmistakably choreographed feel. Absolutely nothing on screen is incidental or accidental, and fans of the comic will have no trouble at all making the visual connection to iconic panels, even if the subject matter and the characters are completely new and different. The tiniest pieces of set decoration, from the design of mugs used by characters to the titles of books left inconspicuously out on desks, to the posters hanging up in elementary school classrooms, have layers upon layers of meaning.
The one downside here is the fact that this particular style of storytelling is laser-focused on viewers who are already familiar with the stylings of the graphic novel. Watchmen does not hold your hand, even for a moment, and while some viewers will be thrilled by this, others may feel thrown into the deep end without hope of staying afloat. It is the sort of show that begs for repeat viewings just to scrape out the last little bit of information presented, and for some, the time commitment may feel a bit too much like trying to play inside baseball without any promise of a payoff.
During the Q&A portion of the panel at New York Comic-Con, the comic's co-creator and artist Dave Gibbons made a surprise appearance and explained that, even as he was working on the original 12 issues, what really made the story click for him was the moment he stopped thinking of it as a superhero story. "I started thinking of it as an alternate reality sci-fi comic that happened to involve superheroes," Gibbons explained. "That's when the nature of the thing started making sense to me."
The pilot is steeped in that sensibility. Sure, superheroes play a major role, and yes, there's no shortage of commentary about the complicated interplay between vigilantism and heroism, but at its heart, Episode 1 feels like the start of something truly special for fans of science fiction television.
Watchmen Season 1 premieres October 20 on HBO.