Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 comic series Watchmen, later published as a graphic novel, is rightly considered as one of the greatest stories ever told in its medium. It pushed boundaries with its political commentary and brilliantly satirised superhero stories. Many said it could never be adapted; Zack Snyder’s film failed; the Before Watchmen comic prequel failed; the Doomsday Clock sequel series is failing. All was set for HBO’s attempt to continue the trend.
Yet, HBO’s Watchmen show is not only a successful follow up to the original comic, but it is also as boundary-pushing for television as the original was for comics 30 years prior.
Part sequel, part adaptation, HBO’s Watchmen is perhaps the first of its type. The closest comparison is Blade Runner 2049, which is a similar modern revisitation of the source material which incorporates old and new characters. Both are set in the same world as the original. The big difference is that the original Blade Runner and 2049 share the same storytelling medium. Watchmen has the audacity to pick up plotlines and characters from a 30-year-old comic, and expect the audience to have read the source material.
The show starts with the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in which a racist white mob killed hundreds of unarmed black civilians in a horrific act of racial violence. This is contrasted by a performance of the musical ‘Oklahoma’ by an African-American cast in an alternate 2019. From its opening episode, Watchmen makes a very clear point: white supremacy is terrorism and America was born with and still exists with horrific systemic racism.
Of course, following the precedent of the comic, it provides morally ambiguous characters, tackles heavy themes and questions the idea of superheroes, evaluating the trauma that causes people to hide behind masks. It does this through both its new characters and returning characters from the comic.
It’s easy to give all the credit for the success of the show to the showrunner, Damon Lindelof, but the incredibly talented and diverse cast and crew are the real stars. Regina King steals the show in front of the camera, meanwhile the writing staff, most of whom are women and people of colour, have crafted some of the most satisfying and emotionally complex pieces of television ever.
The first two episodes brilliantly introduce the new characters and how the 2019 of Watchmen differs from our own. This is then deconstructed as the show goes on, with almost a different point-of-view character each episode, jumping through time to create a beautiful mosaic of storytelling, with setups and payoffs to every mystery it poses.
The only constant throughline is that in every episode, we see a few minutes of Jeremy Irons acting strangely in a deserted castle. Eventually, like every mystery in the series, this pays off, but it would be hard to say that the scenes are up to the high standard of the rest of the show. Another slight disappointment is that people who haven’t read the comic will struggle to follow the show fully.
But if you haven’t read the Watchmen series yet, then you should quickly rectify that mistake before watching the best show of 2019, the best show of the decade, and arguably one of the best shows of all time.