TV review: Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is dense with ideas and alive with possibility


WATCHMEN (Damon Lindelof). Sundays at 9 pm on HBO Canada starting October 20, and streaming on Crave. Rating: NNNN

It’s been a decade since Zack Snyder’s divisive big-screen adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s comic book series Watchmen, and the world is very different. Superhero narratives are the dominant form of entertainment, and Snyder’s portentous grim-dark aesthetic has been largely abandoned. 

But Watchmen is all portent, set in a 1985 where caped vigilantes have been legislated into the shadows, where America and Russia are racing almost enthusiastically towards a nuclear exchange and where the only real super-being is so detached from humanity as to be indifferent to its extinction.

So how do you make that story – which deconstructed its own mythology within the text – relevant for 2019? Well, if you’re Damon Lindelof, and you’re making Watchmen for HBO, you leave it in the rear-view and think about what the world would look like after the comics’ cataclysmic finale.

Lindelof’s Watchmen runs a very smart refresh on the material, opening decades later and focusing on the lives of ordinary people who’ve grown up in the shadow of those extraordinary events. (And for those of you wondering which version of those events Lindelof considers canon, since Snyder’s film radically altered Moore and Gibbons’s ending… well, let’s just leave that hanging.) 

Our point of entry is Tulsa cop Angela Abar (Regina King), who – like all police – dons a mask to do her job. Law enforcement conceal their identities to protect themselves and their families from a Rorschach-inspired organization called the Seventh Cavalry, which actively targets them. That’s not the only existential threat Angela has to deal with in her day-to-day: racial tensions have spiked since President Redford agreed to reparations – though as an early flashback to 1921 shows us, those tensions have always been part of Black life in Oklahoma.

A brutal murder in the first episode opens up a mystery that reaches back through the decades, with Angela somehow at the centre of it. Meanwhile, at his estate on the other side of the world, a wealthy, decadent older gentleman (Jeremy Irons) is up to something really weird. Readers of the comic will know precisely who he is; others get to find out over time, as the show’s master plot slowly coalesces. 

Lindelof and his writers delight in their world-building, referencing the original Watchmen with visual nods and the odd piece of familiar tech, but the best thing about this new show is its subtle retro aesthetic. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s musical score sounds like something John Carpenter might have been kicking around in 1985, and no one has cellphones or email because science went a different direction after the creation of Dr. Manhattan in the Atomic Age. (He’s on Mars, by the way.) 

It’s not our world, but people are still people: self-involved, sure, sometimes venal and spiteful, always grappling with the question of right and wrong. Angela, at least, seems to be a good person, with a loving husband (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and a boss (Don Johnson) who loves her like a daughter. 

It’s all going to go to hell, because any way you slice it, this is Watchmen, where no one in the world ever gets what they want and happy endings are found in the wake of soul-crushing compromise. But from the early episodes, even though Lindelof’s show is nothing like the original comics, it honours their aesthetic and intention. This Watchmen, too, is dense with ideas and alive with possibility. 

I have no idea where it’s going, but I want to see it get there.