I suppose it should first be noted that HBO’s new series Watchmen, is not an adaptation of the iconic comic book miniseries/graphic novel created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Instead, what executive producer Damon Lindelof has done is try and extrapolate what the shape of that world would look like nearly 35 years after the climax of that story. Before the first episode of the series screened at New York Comic Con this past weekend, Lindelof himself tongue-in-cheekily described the show as “very, very, very expensive fanfic,” so let the Moore devotees who aren’t happy that this show even exists take it as they may.
It should also be noted that the first episode does not fully reveal that shape of the world. We do not learn what the immediate reaction was to the hero-turned-madman Adrian Veidt’s plan to fake an alien invasion in order to unite the nations of the world against a common, if fictional, enemy. We do learn that at some point while costumed vigilantes remain outlawed as they were in the graphic novel, police officers have begun wearing masks and adopting specific, superhero-like costumes and codenames. Life itself got back to some form of normalcy, if you will allow Robert Redford being elected president in 1992 and staying in office all the way through to the present day.
The series opens deceptively on a silent film featuring a masked hero of the old West in the vein of Zorro. We pull back to reveal a small child in an empty movie theater, while the infamous Tulsa race riot of 1921 rages outside. As a bit of groundwork, it is indeed an interesting place to start. The silent film that the young boy is watching features a pulpish masked hero in the vein of Zorro who could very well be one of the inspirations for the vigilantes and superheroes who will populate a good portion of this world’s next several decades. It also gives background for the depth of racism and racial tension that still runs through this version of Tulsa nearly a century later as we see one of the biggest concerns for the police is the reemergence of a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Cavalry.
As the episode shifts to its modern day setting we are introduced to police detective Angela Abar, or Sister Night (Regina King) as she is known for her work as a police officer. After a police officer is attacked by a member of the Seventh Cavalry, Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) orders a rounding up of the usual suspects. One suspected member of the Seventh Cavalry gives the police information that leads to a raid on one of the group’s hideouts. Several members of the group are captured but a few escape with material they need for some mysterious reason that will undoubtedly be revealed over the course of the series’ run.
While that feels light on plot for an hour-long episode of television, this premier installment of Watchmen does take plenty of time to sketch out the alternate history of its world in big and little ways. But it mostly doesn’t do so in big obvious ways, but as little background details for the astute viewer to catch.
When the project was first announced, Lindelof explained that this version of Watchmen was going to be a “remix” of sorts, taking elements of the original comic and utilizing them in different ways. The most obvious example of this is the way that members of the Seventh Cavalry wear masks that replicate the one worn by the Watchmen vigilante Rorschach and twist one of his most famous speeches from the comic into a message of hate. But as the Seventh Cavalry is twisting those words of Rorschach towards their own purposes, Lindelof is doing the same with Watchmen. And the results so far are somewhat fascinating.
Watchmen may be very much as subversive a television show as it is a graphic novel. But while we have the full complete version of the original four-color story available to us, this new tale is slowly unfolding itself. Two major characters – to be played by Jean Smart and Hong Chau – have yet to be introduced on screen. We have only small hints as to what the bigger, overarching plot of these nine episodes will be. To try and render a judgement on the series based on just this first episode would not be fair to what Lindelof and his crew are trying to do with their story any more than it would acceptable for a student to write a book report on just a novel’s first chapter. But like a good first chapter of any story, this one has us hooked and ready to see where things proceed from here.