Before I became a full-fledged HBO Watchmen fanatic — regularly reading episode recaps, consulting the Wikipedia page for the original 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, placing a hold for said comic at the library, raving to my coworkers, and texting friends about each twist — I approached the show with caution.
Though I still had some loyalty to Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof — whose past TV dramas, Lost and The Leftovers, I had loved and consumed with a furious delirium — I was wary of the advance press for Watchmen, which was breathless about the drama’s reckoning with race, preemptively imbuing with the show with an Importance that I found tiring and worried would be didactic. But I decided to commit to the pilot, at least, because I will watch anything starring Regina King.
Now that there are only two episodes left in the season (fingers crossed that there will be a second!), I am eating my words and urging you, dear reader, to enjoy this dizzying, complicated, thrilling, poignant, hilarious, bizarre, sexy show that feels unlike anything else on television right now. That Watchmen upends some pervasive myths that comic books have helped create around the police and the American government at large — namely that both are inherently honorable institutions unblemished by white supremacy — is the icing on the cake.
Watchmen is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2019, but in an alternate America. (The events of the comic take place some 34 years before.) In this new America, Robert Redford is president, Vietnam is the 51st state of the union, and police officers wear masks to hide their identities after a vicious attack by a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry. There’s also a museum where you can discover the lineage of your ancestors, thanks in part to a holographic Henry Louis Gates.
Now that there are only two episodes left in the season, I am urging you to enjoy this dizzying, complicated, thrilling, poignant, hilarious, bizarre, sexy show that feels unlike anything else on television right now.
Regina King plays Angela Abar, a police officer, though as far as her three adopted white children know, she’s retired from the force and owns a Vietnamese bakery. Besides her coworkers and boss — police chief Judd Crawford (played with sinister charisma by Don Johnson) — only she and her husband Cal (the unbelievably sexy Yayha Abdul-Matteen II) know what Angela really does for a living.
The writing about Watchmen, of which there has been plenty — often very good — has tended to center around the show’s sure-footed approach to race. When Topher, Angela and Cal’s oldest child, refers to another student in his class as a racist in the pilot, I did a double take — because it still feels so rare to hear a white person say that so assuredly, in real life or in fiction. I felt similarly when FBI agent Laurie Blake (played with pitch-perfect world weariness by Jean Smart) says in the seventh episode, “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least entertain the idea that the chief of police of Tulsa wasn’t a secret white supremacist.” Oh really? Word! The pilot even begins with a wrenching reenactment of the real-life Tulsa massacre of 1921, which left hundreds of black people dead and their businesses burned by a mob of racist white people. That scene helps provide context for setting Watchmen in Tulsa.
And then there’s the stunning, deservedly lauded sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” an innovative, haunting look at generational trauma and a blistering indictment of the real-life ways in which white police officers discriminate against their black colleagues, both historically and in the present day.
But beyond the trenchant politics is the strangeness of the show itself. Because it is so weird! Squids falling from the sky? Sure. Agent Blake cradling a giant blue dildo and making weird philosophical phone calls to someone on Mars? Okay, let’s roll with it! Jeremy Irons living in a lush palace on some Welsh island, forcing his bizarrely obsequious servants to perform plays? Weird but okay. Is Lady Trieu good or evil? Damned if I know!
And that’s what makes Watchmen so deeply pleasurable to watch. You have to accept how much you won’t know what’s going on until deep in the middle of the season — a trademark of Lindelof’s shows. And, after accepting that, you just kind of go with it. Let the mystery wash over you. It’s a risky gambit for viewers — but for those who stick around, it’s one that really pays off handsomely.
There are smaller things too — like how gorgeously the series is shot. There’s the way the title credits appear in a scene — as, say, egg yolks or giant blocks of yellow text. And there are the unorthodox music choices (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do the soundtrack). Not every episode is golden. Last week’s “An Almost Religious Awe” was a little clunky, for example, but even the weak episodes feel like appointment TV.
As someone who sat out watching that medieval fantasy series about white people raping and killing each other, and who also can’t tolerate that Twitter darling show about horrible, rich white people being horrible, finally being able to partake in the pleasures of watching a critically acclaimed show that people tweet about on Sunday nights feels really nice!
Fortunately, I’m not the only one raving about the show. As word of mouth has increased, it’s become a bona fide hit and is HBO’s most-watched new series besides Big Little Lies. Each week, the momentum appears to grow. It’s must-see TV for me, and I humbly suggest that it might be for you too. ●