Watchmen is provocative. Depending on who you are, it may be infuriating. Fortunately, though, that’s not all Watchmen is. From the show’s first moments, it shows you that it has way more on its mind than empty attempts at outrage. Adding Regina King into the mix doesn’t hurt either.
Throughout the premiere, titled “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” Watchmen carefully unfolds a world that’s totally different from the one we live in, but features many of the same hang-ups. In introducing us first to the notion of American racism via a flashback to the very real events of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, the show leads with ideas that have virtually nothing to do with the comic this series is named after.
From there, the rest of the episode does what Damon Lindelof, the show’s creator and executive producer is best at: It blends character building with an introduction to a fascinating world. It’s got some shocking moments of violence, but that violence is blended with plenty of detailed humanity.
That’s aided throughout this episode by the performances from Regina King and Don Johnson specifically. As Sister Knight, a masked avenger working with the police, King is a superhero in a world where being one is no longer remarkable. This is a world where the events of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen took place, but one where they are a part of history just like any other. Some details will resonate for fans of the comic, but this TV series is as much its own story as any unauthorized sequel could be.
Lindelof’s skill at intrigue and world-building is second to none. His work on both Lost and The Leftovers makes him a logical choice for the combination of science fiction and alternate history that a story like Watchmen requires. Even as this world’s details unfold, though, they aren’t the only thing that makes the show compelling. He and his team of writers deserve more credit for crafting entertaining set pieces. This premiere has a truly great one at a white supremacist hideout involving some horrifically mutilated cow carcasses. It’s fun superhero action in the middle of a pretty complex story.
The filmmaking seems designed to both thrill and envelop the viewer. Director Nicole Kassell employs tracking shots and plenty of striking frames that offer a vivid picture of how normal masked heroism is in this world. Watchmen, like the comic that provides its inspiration, is also colorful. Dramas should be colorful! The show isn’t afraid to be fun, even as it plays with plenty of serious ideas.
Those serious ideas are what the show is ultimately about, though. Watchmen creates a world where white supremacy is very much a threat, but it’s one where cops are the primary victims of that violence. Obviously, that’s a huge difference from 2019 America, where racism plays a huge role in the death of many black people by police.
The difference is striking and startling, but the show’s already working to complicate it. The police force in this world is both militant and violent. That violence is mostly perpetrated against white supremacists, so it feels justified, but that feels like a dynamic that could be complicated in the weeks ahead.
Even with its militant police force, the show seems to offer a vision of a more broadly liberal world. On Watchmen, reparations are a reality. It’s also a world where a group of masked vigilantes once united to save the day, and ultimately failed to solve all of the world’s problems. That was one of the original comic’s core ideas: Change is possible, but it’s far from permanent.
We see the impermanence of any efforts at change throughout the premiere. This is a world where Robert Redford has been president for 30 years, and has apparently been broadly liberal in his policymaking. Even so, things are still pretty screwed up.
The original Watchmen comic asked its readers to imagine what superheroes would really look like if they interacted with our world. Would they become state-sanctioned vigilantes, like Sister Knight and many of the other masked cops on the police force? What’s more, both the comic and this new show are interested in what would make a person become a masked vigilante.
Damon Lindelof has always had a tremendous ability to create worlds that naturally lead to questions. If you’re a Lost hater, you may be troubled by the notion that the questions he raises may not have satisfactory answers. The cliffhanger at the end of this premiere, which sees Don Johnson’s chief of police lynched, suggests that whatever comes next is likely to be both compelling and shrouded in mystery.
The show is a big swing, and frankly, I was always going to fall for it. Shows with big questions are my favorite kind, because even when they fail, they’re always interesting. Watchmen is interested in asking big questions about the history of race in America, and about the way that history has shaped our present circumstances. Even in a world where acclaimed actor Robert Redford has been president for 30 years, things are still broken. Watchmen is asking the questions. Whether it has the answers or not, it’s sure to be a deeply compelling watch.
9/10 – The best TV shows take big, bold swings, and there’s no swing bigger than Watchmen. Whether you’re a fan of the comic or not, this televised incarnation may prove to be worth your time.