US tv series (2019). DC Comics/HBO/Paramount Television/Warner Brothers/Storm Studios/White Rabbit. Created by and show-runner Damon Lindelof; loosely based on Watchmen (graph 1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Directed by Steph Green, Nicole Kassell, Damon Lindelof, Andrij Parekh, David Semel, Frederick E O Toye and Stephen Williams. Written by Lila Byock, Nick Cuse, Christal Henry, Cord Jefferson, Jeff Jensen, Claire Kiechel, Damon Lindelof, Stacy Osei-Kuffour and Carly Wray. Cast includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hong Chau, Louis Gossett Jr, Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, Regina King, Tom Mison, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Redford, Jean Smart and Sara Vickers. Nine 52-67 minute episodes. Colour.
Though it is set in a broadly similar Alternate History, Watchmen is not an adaptation of the Alan Moore Comic series, but a "remixed" sequel set after the events of the Graphic Novel: but not, importantly, observing the same continuity as the 2009 film (see Watchmen). The original artist Dave Gibbons acted as a consultant while Moore, true to form, disavowed the series.
Watchmen opens with a real-life atrocity. In 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, a white mob attacks a middle-class black neighbourhood, burning 35 blocks and murdering dozens. The most "comic book" moment, where private aircraft bomb the city, is drawn from historical accounts.
Ninety-eight years later, the Tulsa police department use pseudonyms and masks to protect themselves from retaliation from a white supremacist terrorist organisation called The Seventh Kavalry. The Kavalry, analogous to the Ku Klux Klan, wear the inkblot facemasks of deceased vigilante Rorschach (from the original story), and have interpreted his scribblings as a Political creed. Only the Kavalry believe Rorschach's insinuation that missing businessman and ex-hero Adrian Veidt was responsible for the squid attack that destroyed New York in the 1980s.
When Tulsa's white police chief is hanged – a murder paralleling the death of the Comedian in the original story – his black deputy "Sister Night" launches an investigation that grows to encapsulate murderous hypnotists, a centenarian avenger, a Good Old Boy politician, a Vietnamese billionaire, interplanetary travel and a new Doomsday Clock. In a not obviously connected plot thread, an urbane and elderly gentleman seeks to free himself from an idyllic country estate. The omnipotent Doctor Manhattan is conspicuous by his absence.
Watchmen is a weird adaptation that emulates the story-beats of the original graphic novel while transposing them onto a new plot. If Watchmen the graphic novel was interested in the broken psyches of its "superheroes", Watchmen the television show uses the same tropes to examine race relations in America, reminding us that the first American vigilantes to wear masks were the Ku Klux Klan. The series draws significant power in its entwining of history and invention, as it expands on its predecessor's analysis of generational trauma.
Although criticized by some for appropriating Moore and Gibbon's iconography for an unrelated story, Watchmen ably teases its narrative out of cracks discoverable in the original piece, along with sequences referencing and haunted by specific incidents in the original: a strategy also successfully employed in the essentially nonfantastic television series Fargo (2014-current), which is based on the film Fargo (1996) directed by the Coen Brothers. Characters, imagery and dialogue are repurposed; the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter is paralleled by the tv show-within-a-tv show American Hero Story. Hooded Justice, a minor costumed vigilante in the graphic novel, is imagined in the series as a black man, drastically reshaping the meaning of the noose he wears about his neck.
Despite touching on contentious issues like institutionalized racism and reparations, Watchmen is not polemical and its dissonant America is wreathed in layers of irony. The Seventh Kavalry are inspired by conspiracy theory ravings, yet viewers know them to be partially true. A black man is killed by a white man during a routine traffic stop, only this time the black man is the police officer. Picking up a joke from the graphic novel, the actor Robert Redford is namechecked as a proudly liberal president, but his thirty-year rule suggests a progressive authoritarianism; Redford himself does not appear in the first series. These plot points could be seen as justification for a right-wing nationalist worldview; they firmly are not. The series anchors its weirdness in the experience of being black in America, and episode 6, "This Extraordinary Being", offers an unflinching depiction of a black man's encounters with institutional racism, humiliation and lynching in twentieth-century Oklahoma.
The world-building is superb and sustains the series from its audacious opening, although the final episodes lose some of their power as old faces are forced into the narrative, and the balance between contemporary and cosmic concerns shifts towards the latter. At its best, Watchmen is confronting and illuminating; at its worst, it reads as fan-fiction. Alan Moore wrote his cynical American epic from an outsider's perspective, but while Damon Lindelof assembled a writing team balanced between male, female, black and white voices, all are American and their internal perspective is both the brilliance and shortcoming of the series. Moore would never have probed the open-wound of American race relations, or asked if his masked vigilantes were unconsciously upholding white supremacy; but his suggestion that all moral philosophies falter in the face of intractable problems is replaced in the television show by a more black and white morality in which justice triumphs, the truth will out, and we celebrate the All-American nuclear family amid lashings of Judeo-Christian imagery. Perhaps Lindelof too literally interpreted a phrase from the graphic novel: "God exists, and he's American". [JN]