“Legendary” and “iconic” are words that get tossed around a bit too easily and often these days, but sometimes they apply. In 1986, Alan Moore wrote a stunningly different comic book limited series called the Watchmen. Originally, Moore wanted to use the Charlton heroes DC had acquired. Told he couldn’t, he made analogues- Rorschach for Question, Nite Owl for Blue Beetle, etc. It was a brutally different, morally ambiguous tale dealing with the themes of power, what’s best for society, and how heroes would fit into a more realistic world. The series made an impression on the collective consciousness of comic book readers, and routinely appears on “Best of/Top 10” lists. It was adapted, less successfully, into a movie in 2009. Now, HBO is doing a nine episode series set in that world, but well after the events from the comics. It’s not quite a direct adaptation, and there’s some ambiguity as to whether you can really call it a sequel. Judging by the first episode, I’d call it thought-provoking and pretty damn good, if a bit unclear at times. It all starts off with “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out Of Ice.”
The show’s opening is haunting, and designed to be. A young boy watches an old black and white serial about Bass Reeves, a real-world law man who should be a legend, but was often left out of history books because he happened to be black. Some credit him as the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. This tale of heroism gets interrupted (flat out heroism rarely goes well in the Watchmen world) by a major disturbance outside- the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, another real world event that the powers that be did their best to cover up. It’d be easy to dismiss this as a dramatic incident for the series, but it was sadly very real. This scene of violence ends tragically and then segues into the modern day. What direct ties the modern era has to the scenes in the ‘20s isn’t clear yet, but I expect will be eventually.
In the present, the differences between this world, the main DC Universe, and the real world start becoming clear almost at once. A man gets pulled over on a traffic stop, and we see that the police, at least here, have red and yellow lights, they have a very different weapons policy, and at least some of the officers wear masks. Eventually, we see the police range from regular uniforms and a simple mask to more elaborate, individualized costumes. This traffic stop goes very badly, thanks in part to the weapons policy, and we also see a familiar symbol from the original Watchmen has been co-opted by a vicious group who don’t seem to have any actual ties to the original character they’re taking the image of.
In a jarring scene change, we’re suddenly watching the musical “Oklahoma.” After a few moments of panning around, it becomes apparent that the cast is all black, as is most of the audience. Race is apparently going to be a recurring theme here. They’re not big on proper identifiers on this show, so rather than a lot of “this guy who…” descriptions, I’m going to use the credits from IMDB to name characters. Police Chief Judd Crawford (played by an aging but still energetic Don Johnson), one of the few whites watching, gets pulled out of the show and briefed on the earlier traffic stop incident. Briefing him is a cop with a silvery mask known as Looking Glass, and we hear about some elaborate precautions being taken and a much different response to the tragedy than we’d have in this world. Interestingly, the Chief tells Looking Glass to “pull his face down” when the mask is up. Rorschach referred to his mask as his face—whether there’s a connection here or not isn’t clear. The Chief makes the painful notification to next of kin, and we witness more differences between this world and ours.
With another odd scene shift, there’s a voiceover about egg whites as a camera pans through a classroom which, among other things, shows a news story playing about Dr. Manhattan doing something or other on Mars. Their technology must be better than ours, because it’s an amazing clear image coming from another planet. This turns into a woman teaching a class how to cook, and talking about how she used to be a cop but quit after the “White Night” and before cops had masks. Racial tensions are high, and a fistfight erupts over the word “Redford-ations.” The woman proves to be Angela Abar, who we’ll see a lot more of later. Her talk includes the passing reference to Viet Nam becoming a state, likely a ripple effect from the god-like Dr. Manhattan being involved in that conflict in this world. There’s also some very peculiar weather as Angela and her daughter go home to an oddly racially mixed family, considering the parents and what we’ve seen of the world so far. Angela, after answering her pager, proves to be a masked cop going by the name Sister Knight, and has one of the best costumes on the show. She has an elaborate routine to protect her secret, and an odd encounter on the way to work with a wheelchair using Louis Gossett, Jr, playing “Will Reeves.” They don’t reveal it here, but I can’t imagine the name is a coincidence.
There are some more passing references in the background to a special coming on television soon called “American Hero,” which seems to be about the Minutemen, this world’s top, and possibly only, group of superheroes. We hear about a racist group called the 7th Cavalry, who seem to be domestic terrorists akin to the KKK, and see Sister Knight in action. I guess the Miranda warning isn’t a thing here. There’s a big briefing with all the cops, and some clear dissension in the ranks over weapons. Up in Chief Crawford’s office, there’s some amusing banter between him and Sister Night. This leads to the interrogation of the man Sister Night captured, and there’s some interesting technology involved here, too. It seems some very high-tech toys have filtered down to the police. This is followed by a much more low-tech, direct form of questioning which gives them the location of the 7th’s hideout.
The raid on the 7th’s base of operations is brutal, gory, and shows some more high-tech toys that are familiar to those that know the Watchmen. What the bad guys are up to, exactly, isn’t clear, but they’re gathering things to do something, and are very heavily armed. There’s a heavy firefight, a unique chase, some high drama, and a brief appearance by actress Jessica Camacho, better known to Flash fans as Gypsy. This scene helps give rise to some rumors about who Chief Crawford might actually be.
Seemingly unrelated to anything so far, there’s a scene with a Very English Lord of the Manor riding and talking with his servants. It’s a very strange scene and I suspect (and hope) we’ll understand it more later. In a very different scene, Chief Crawford, his wife, Angela, her husband, and a lot of kids share dinner, teasing, and even a song. Chief Crawford is not pure as the driven snow, but snow plays a part in his evening. After the meal, he and Angela try and figure out what the 7th was up to, but neither of them really has an idea.
Things take a turn for the end of the show. There’s an elaborate trap for one of the characters, who doesn’t make it out. One of the others gets a cryptic phone call, sees a disturbing sight, and has an unexpected meeting with someone from earlier in the show. Things end with a partial recreation of one of the iconic images from Watchmen and a song that’s a bit too on the nose, although it does give us the title.
What I liked: The writing, acting, and visuals were all very good here. It had the right feel for the world of the Watchmen. There are nods to the characters from before, but they’re not the focus of the story. The new characters are interesting, as is the set-up for the events here. There are passing references to things that are clearly important, but hopefully how those connect and more detail on some events will be coming along.
What I didn’t: I get developing the story, but the English scene was utterly disconnected from everything. I’d like a bit more detail about some of the momentous events that clearly changed this world.
Overall, I was impressed by this, and I really wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I’ll give this a 4 out of 5. I’m on board for the remaining eight episodes unless they do something amazingly stupid between then and now.