The Watchmen on HBO is perhaps the Age of Streaming’s most drastic departure from its source. Showrunner Damon Lindelof (Lost) defies the boy-lit stereotypes by making the most important figures in the show mature women: Regina King and Jean Smart.
It helps to know the original, anyway. The 1986 graphic novel and the 2009 film concerned a group of forcibly retired masked heroes. They learned that someone threw one of their number was thrown out a high window. Key to the investigation was a Krishna-blue atomic superman called Dr. Manhattan (as in “the Manhattan Project”). His presence assured American supremacy in the world, easing Nixon into his fourth term. But he slowly became a deity, uninterested in human affairs. And when he vanished, nuclear war with the USSR loomed.
The self-appointed investigator was an outlaw, the evil-smelling vigilante Rorschach. Among his suspects was the supergenius Adrian Veidt, called Ozymandias, scheming a drastic act before the missiles fired: a severing of the Gordian knot tying the hands of the superpowers.
This was no mere superhero parody by the authors Alan Moore (who has taken his name off the series) and Dave Gibbons. It was speculative fiction about how our national art of masked-vigilante lore parallels the dark extra-legal activities the USA carried out during the Cold War and beyond … to say nothing of the development of the atomic bomb’s development, which some might claim broke the laws of God and man.
There are fleeting references to the source all through the new show. Seen in the graphic novel was some Bansky-ish art, the nuclear-burnt silhouette of vaporized lovers. WeIt is glimpseglimpsed it here in a Tulsa alley. And throughout is the symbol of a watch—in Watchmen, it clicked ever closer to midnight in honor of the Journal of Atomic Scientists’ clock. (It’s currently set at two minutes to midnight—sleep tight!)
Thirty years after the original Watchmen’s events, we’re in Tulsa. King—a formidable, yet sensitive actor—is Angela, a former cop who survived the “White Night” massacre in which a white supremacist group called “the Seventh Cavalry” mudered dozens of police were murdered in their homes on Christmas Eve by a white supremacist group called “the Seventh Cavalry.”. President Robert Redford, now in his sixth term, grabbed all the guns, leaving “bitter clingers” to seethe in their trailer parks.
Along with Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross’s spine-chilling soundtrack, the background chatter includes a mega-event TV series show-within-a-show, broadcast after loads of promotion and emblazoned with federal warnings to viewers triggered by everything this side of peanut allergies. It’ll trace the story all the way back to its roots in the Depression, when costumed vigilantes first began to ensure that justice was overserved.
Strange interludes include a nudist eccentric writer (Jeremy Irons, his voice toned by the years to a rich baritone) celebrating (daily) a mysterious anniversary, and performing savage experiments on human drones. An occasional comic book fight scene holds the show together. King is a handsome sight as the leather nun “Sister Night,” with airbrushed-on black mask like Pru in Blade Runner.
By the way, it sometimes rains alien calamari. This may account for the fishy smell of the characters’ stories; clearly everyone has a secret identity in this tantalizing opus. Amidst the high kicks and swirling capes, Watchmen is a puzzle with a paranoid contemporary side. Today political extremists make dark threats of Civil War 2; on the show, as in real life, the masks are coming off.