“I have a secret plan to save humanity and it starts in Oklahoma.”

HBO dropped a limited series1, running from October to December of 2019, which gave us a sequel to Watchmen. The influential 1985 graphic novel did not require a sequel, but this one tries to be true to its source material, and it has received numerous accolades.2

We didn’t review it at the time, but we’re examining and, hopefully, discussing the series here. Who watched the Watchmen?

Expect some spoilers.

Titles: “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” “Little Fear of Lightning,” “This Extraordinary Being,” “An Almost Religious Awe,” “A God Walks into A Bar,” “See How They Fly”

Cast and Crew

Directors: Nicole Kassell, Stephen Williams, Andrij Parekh, Steph Green, David Semel, Frederick E.O. Toye

Written by Damon Lindelof, Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Carly Wray, Cord Jefferson, Stacy Osei-Kuffour, Claire Kiechel, Jeff Jensen.

Inspired by and featuring characters from the graphic novel/series by Alan Moore and David Gibbons

Regina King as Angela Abar / Sister Night
Don Johnson as Judd Crawford
Tim Blake Nelson as Wade Tillman / Looking Glass
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Calvin “Cal” Abar / Dr. Manhattan
Louis Gossett Jr. as Will Reeves
Jovan Adepo as young Will Reeves / Hooded Justice
Danny Boyd Jr. as really young Will Reeves
Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias
Jean Smart as Laurie Blake / Silk Spectre II
Hong Chau as Lady Trieu
James Wolk as Senator Joe Keene Jr.
Faith Herman as young Angela
Frances Fisher as Jane Crawford
Jessica Camacho as Pirate Jenny
Dylan Schombing as Christopher “Topher” Abar
Adelynn Spoon as Emma Abar
Lily Rose Smith as Rosie Abar
Andrew Howard as Red Scare
Tom Mison as Mr. Phillips et al
Sara Vickers as Ms. Crookshanks et al
Dustin Ingram as Agent Petey
Jolie Hoang-Rappaport as Bian
Steven Norfleet as O.B. William
Alexis Louder as Ruth Williams
Darrell Snedeger and Zak Rothera-Oxley as Jon Osterman / Dr. Manhattan
Cheyenne Jackson TV Hooded Justice
Phil Labes as young Wade Tillman
Elyse Dinh as Bian I
Jacob Ming-Trent as Panda
Henry Louis Gates Jr. as Skip Gates
Regina Ting Chen as crew chief
Anatole Taubman as Hans Osterman
Jim Beaver as Andy
Lee Tergesen as Mister Shadow
David Andrews as Deputy Director Max Farragut
Jake McDorman as Nelson Gardner / Captain Metropolis
Chris Whitley as TV Captain Metropolis
Eileen Grubba as Cynthia Bennett
Paula Malcomson as Renee
Glenn Fleshler as Fred
Danielle Deadwyler and Valeri Ross as June
Anthony Hill as Marcus Abar
Devyn A. Taylor as Elise Abar
Ted Johnson as Joe Keene Sr.
Junie Hoang as Headmistress
Julia Vasi as Roxy

Original music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Premise

We’re in the alternative 2019 that follows from Watchmen. Rorschach’s journal was published years early, but largely dismissed. The late vigilante nevertheless remains a cult figure among disgruntled groups, including Oklahoma’s white supremacist Seventh Kavalry. The government has outlawed costumed vigilantes, and the FBI’s Laurie Blake—the former Silk Spectre II— heads the division that brings them in. However, police in Tulsa keep secret identities and act like costumed vigilantes. The rank-and-file wear a distinctive yellow face covering that would not be out of place in the actual 2020. Certain special detectives have personalized costumes and sobriquets.

Also in Tulsa we find Lady Trieu, a female version of Adrian Veidt, who has a plan. She appears to be connected to Veidt/Osymandias, who resides, apparently imprisoned, in an unknown pastoral location.

Tying the various storylines together is Angela Abar aka Sister Night, who wants to solve the murder of Tulsa’s chief of police. Several people will become involved in her quest, including the detective known as Looking Glass, the centenarian who was once Hooded Justice, a slick U.S. senator, and something called, “Cyclops.”

As for Dr. Manhattan….

High Points

“Masks make men cruel.”

The original Watchmen addressed and satirized the Cold War. This incarnation examines a world where the absence of the Cold War might be part of the problem. Are we so bound by our primitive wiring that, when we lack a real adversary, we inevitably turn on each other? And how far can we go to keep the peace? How much power in anyone’s hands can be tolerated?

This show comments intelligently on racism, culture wars, political tribalism, political power, and a number of other topics. And while its 2019 lacks the World Wide Web and social media, viewers could not miss the show’s focus on the dangers of clandestine and anonymous activity.

Low Point

Some of the plot elements feel excessive, especially in a show as heavy as this one. For example, Cyclops, essential to the story, has been developed in ways that are often quite clever. Even some of the show’s smallest gestures here are brilliant. The Cyclops projector’s abilities are rather extreme, however, and its satiric intent, a little too pat. They could have dialed these elements down and made the same point. However, Watchmen has always featured comic-book tech and paranoiac satire, so I cannot make too much of an issue here. Just be aware that, occasionally, in the midst of nuanced intelligence, the show will decide to do a metaphorical groin-kick.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Moore will never approve of any adaptation, but Lindelof and company receive credit for staying true to the spirit and style of the source material while rethinking it for a new era. Of course, they draw heavily from that source material, and “rerun” central elements in new contexts.

They also draw heavily from the history of comic books. I thought I enjoyed dropping Easter Eggs into my work! Lindelof is the real allusion-demon here.3

Effects: 6/6 Effects, as in Westworld and Game of Thrones, can often only be identified by virtue of the fact that something is happening onscreen that cannot happen in the real world. They have been seamlessly integrated, with nary a Starbucks coffee out of place.

Acting: 6/6 The show features outstanding performances from the entire cast. It would be hard to settle on any one actor, though Regina King must carry much of the show and she proves more than equal to the task. Tim Blake Nelson equals Anthony Daniels and Jack Earle Haley in his ability to communicate character even when his face is completely covered.

Story: 5/6 The plotting is baroque, to say the least. It wouldn’t be Watchmen if it wasn’t. The various plot strands tie together. Just be prepared for some overly complicated developments.

Production: 6/6 When HBO decides to do high quality production, they really do high-quality production. The show has been brilliantly designed and well-filmed.

Emotional Response: 6/6 The show allows us to connect even in the most bizarre of circumstances. And, fans– the squids, absent from the film adaptation, have been restored.

Overall: 5/6: You know, I kind of like how the show’s dystopia combines and satirizes things feared by both your social-justice friend and your Republican Uncle. Watchmen contains strong satiric elements, and satire that doesn’t offend people probably isn’t very good satire.

But I do apologize for how much the preceding comment buys into a dangerously misleading dichotomy.

In total, Watchmen, Season One receives 37/42

Lingering Question

Should we address the elephant in the room? No, not the actual elephant in the room! The one wheresome people could make the senator and the Kavalry heroes in the way that some people read Rorschach very differently than Moore does? Or is the senator, in the end, too much of a drip for that to happen?

A lot of debate surrounds Dr. Manhattan’s apparent willingness to die, when he could have zapped his attackers onto Quaoar. It’s not enough to say that he experiences time at once; he clearly chooses on multiple occasions to defend himself. In my view, his acceptance of death is a kind of Gethsemane moment. His capture ultimately leads to an outcome he finds desirable, so he permits it to happen. Otherwise, we have to rely on the amnesia and the special cage really messing up his connection with the universe.

You may hold different views.

Notes

1. HBO has confirmed that this is a stand-alone story, although another season set in the Watchmen universe may be in the future.

We may never learn where that last step leads.

2. Despite strong reviews and numerous award nominations and accolades, the “audience” response at Rotten Tomatoes is startlingly low. Reports claim the site was initially “review-bombed” by trolls offended by aspects of the show.

3. I force here a cheap teaser promo for my novel The Con, due out late in 2020) barring any significant COVID-19 delays to the publisher’s schedule). Yes, expect me to promote the heck out of it when the time comes.