Television

Watchmen Is Goofy, Daring, and Packs a Punch

The audacious, unsettling series makes racial violence the superhero’s origin story.

Regina King as Sister Night in Watchmen.
Regina King as Sister Night in Watchmen.
HBO

Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s new HBO series set in the same universe as the famous comic book of the same name, is an energetic, unruly show with a very concise and ambitious objective: to reframe this particular superhero saga, and by implication all the rest of them too, as fundamentally about race and racism. Sprawling over 100 years of history, distinct genres, the American landmass, and various locales in the solar system, Watchmen has a cast of dozens and a contagious dystopian angst as well as a giggly playfulness. This alternate universe is the show’s sandbox, and it not only builds parallels to our present political circumstances, it kicks up gonzo superhero shenanigans, inventive futuristic doohickeys (phone booths to Mars; flying paparazzi), stellar jokes about Schindler’s List (really!), and a great gag involving a giant blue dildo. The show, which debuts on Sunday, crashes pell-mell through plots and ideas and sometimes gets up wobbling, but it’s always circling the centrality of race to any American story about good and bad guys.

Watchmen states its thesis in its opening scene, but with the flair of a showman, not an eighth grader learning about topic sentences. It’s footage from an old silent film in which a hooded man in black chases down a man in white, only for it to turn out that it’s the man in black—also a black man—who’s the real hero. The movie is being watched by a young black boy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, as the real Tulsa race riots rage outside, when mobs of white Tulsans descended on the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood, destroying the neighborhood, killing scores, injuring hundreds, and leaving tens of thousands homeless. (Octavia Spencer is working on a series about the riots.) Although that introduction is tied into the plot by the end of the first episode, it takes several more to understand exactly how the Tulsa riots are this Watchmen’s origin story: the moment in which the superhero was conceived.

Not that the masked crime fighters in Watchman have real superpowers. Watchmen is set in the same universe as the original Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic, but takes place 30 years later—the present, if not our present. Everything that happened in the original series has happened in the HBO series, too, though the show takes its time meting out that information. (While it is not strictly necessary to be familiar with the comic’s mythology or to supplement with frequent visits to the Watchmen wiki while viewing, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be doing exactly that.) Since the 1940s, masked vigilantes in handmade getups with no special powers have taken to the street to fight crime and injustice, while also flaunting their egos and complicating police work. (There is only one genuinely superpowered being in the Watchmen universe, the all-powerful, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, who has been living on Mars for the last 30 years, a god in exile.) Eventually, these vigilantes became outlaws unless they worked for law enforcement.

In present-day Tulsa, where most of the series is set, even the police wear masks now, to protect themselves from a white nationalist group called The Seventh Calvary, who wear ski masks with a Rorschach ink blot on the front. The rank and file police, identities hidden behind yellow face coverings (and occasionally a panda head: I think that guy’s just the administrator), are supplemented by senior officers in full costume. The latter includes the series’ protagonist, Angela Abar (Regina King), who pretends to own a bakery, but in a hooded black leather jacket, black leather pants, and with brown prayer beads hanging from her belt, fights crime as Sister Night.

As the series begins, an uneasy three-year peace between the Tulsa police and the Seventh Calvary is coming to an end, punctuated by the hanging of a high-profile Tulsan. This death drives the series’ plot, even as the story gets increasingly expansive, steadily incorporating elements of Watchmen mythology. One of Angela’s colleagues—who include the maskless Capt. Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), a dead ringer for a deflated Mylar balloon—turns out to be a survivor of the night in 1985 when, as in the original comic, wealthy genius Adrian Veidt dropped a ginormous squid on New York City, killing 3 million people but averting global nuclear war.

In the third episode, an FBI agent played by a dry, crackling Jean Smart is sent to Tulsa to assist with solving the hanging: Her character has her own connections with the Watchmen mythology, and Smart has such fantastic chemistry with King’s Angela that my fingers are crossed for a buddy-cop episode later in the season. Meanwhile, Veidt (Jeremy Irons) appears to be in his own British drawing room series, housed in a lush and increasingly creepy English manor, some kind of zombie Downton Abbey.

And while all that’s going on, Watchmen is engaged in its own euphoric, giddy worldbuilding. There’s no internet or cellphones, but squid regularly rain from the sky. America won the Vietnam War, avoided Watergate, and elected Robert Redford president, an office he’s now held for 30 years. A trailer park called Nixonville is lorded over by a statue of Tricky Dick. The progressive federal government has been unable to halt a growing white nationalist movement and Redfordations, reparations for the decedents of the Tulsa massacre, are bile in every racist’s throat. In this dystopia, even progressive policy hasn’t tempered white supremacy.

This mixture of the goofy and audacious, funny and unsettling, is distinctly Lindelof, the bespectacled white guy who co-created Lost and then atoned for its ending with The Leftovers, a beautiful and wild show animated by a rare sense of creative freedom. Over the course of that series, Lindelof seemed to fully embrace the writer’s godlike powers to do whatever the hell they please. As grief-stricken and mysterious as The Leftovers was, it was also fearless, flying high on a structurally inventive trickster sensibility. Watchmen has the same manic energy of Lindelof going full tilt, but unlike The Leftovers it puts him back in the ring with a kind of obsessive clue-hunting, what-does-all-this-add-up-to? fan community. Having won over some of critics who lambasted him for the ending of Lost with The Leftovers, about a mystery that was never supposed to be solved, he’s now ready to face the fanboys.

And he’s packing a punch. Watchmen is a show that will be scoured for clues about yet-to-be-birthed fan theories, even as it’s an intrinsic provocation of the sorts of genre fans who were angered by Star Wars centering women and people of color, or outraged by the suggestion that certain superheroes, James Bond, or Hermione Granger might be black. It’s not just that Watchmen’s main character is a black woman, it’s how the new show reframes what came before it.

In the sixth episode, the last that was sent to critics, Lindelof, writing with Cord Jefferson, reconfigures the past in a way that does not directly flout any part of the Watchmen mythology but powerfully reframes it. Like the current Broadway staging of Oklahoma, which Lindelof references in the show’s first 10 minutes, it reexamines an existing text and unearths what could have been there. And what it finds applies to much more than Watchmen. It’s only in stories that the people who have had to fight hardest for justice, who have fought hardest for justice, are white—but not, anymore, in this one.