Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at the first two episodes of HBO’s Watchmen. Warning: spoilers ahead…
Watchmen Episode One
It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice
Director: Nicole Kassell
Watchmen Episode Two
Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship
Director: Nicole Kassell
Stars: Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, Don Johnson,
Damon Lindelof has previous when it comes to long form television – he was the showrunner of Lost, a series that pioneered two key elements that are now all too common with current platforms – getting the product out there as quickly as possible and making it all up as you go along (which is something he openly admitted). His tenure on Watchmen, however, confirms another rule – that sometimes the four colour source material is superior. Zack Snyder’s faithful, if not servile transcription of Moore and Gibbons’ hallowed work did occasionally lapse into sixth-form tawdriness, but never enough to debase anything – the movie played, and was better than expected. With a now blank canvas in front of him Lindelof may still have all the comic’s themes and motifs at his disposal, but little else. And in the end, rather than opt for something straightforward, he has chosen to throw everything at the wall in the vain hope that a lucid picture will coalesce.
The story is framed by a depiction of the Tulsa riots of 1921, a real-world historical event whose unparalleled violence was brushed under the carpet by the inhabitants of the city for decades afterwards. The narrative then flashes forward to the present day, where Angela Abar (Regina King) responds to a call from Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) that a police officer has been gunned down by the white supremacist Seventh Kavalry. In her guise as Sister Night, Abar and fellow vigilante Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) find the Kavalry’s enclave and succeed, after a gun battle, in killing all the group’s members. Crawford, a close friend and confidant of Abar, declares that the Kavalry organization, which had been dormant for some time, is active again and that a guerrilla war has begun. We learn through flashbacks that Abar and Crawford were the only surviving police officers of an organized attack from the Kavalry three years earlier who opted to stay on the force. Later on, Abar receives a phone call which asks her to go to a specific location. It is there that she finds Crawford hanging from a tree, with a disabled old man in a wheelchair next to it. We later learn that the man is Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr), who is Abar’s grandfather and a survivor of the 1921 riots. He also claims to be Doctor Manhattan and informs Abar that her friend Crawford was a closet supremacist.
Meanwhile elsewhere an aging Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) camps it up with several different accents while relentlessly bullying his servants in his deserted mansion.
With the series now onscreen one wonders what the creative process or general overview was for this project – the production values are admittedly high, but thematically you wonder what intended connection there could be between the graphic novel and what Lindelof and HBO have produced. Opting for racial themes may be a more than adequate dramatic motor but does go against the universalism of Moore and Gibbons’ work – the book may be a treatise on the psychology of super-heroes and their place in a world similar to ours, but it is also about everyone being doomed as the clock reaches midnight.
The original Watchmen series was also a humanist tale which wasn’t weighed down by identity politics – not that this series has to be slavish to its premise, and indeed does plough its own furrow. Yet if that’s the case, why all the glib references to the doomsday clock, or the repetitive smiley badge motifs? The series lacks the gritty, dystopian, ironic edge of the book and film, and is undercut by far too many half-baked characters who are little more than sketches, such as Looking Glass, or the half-witted Red Scare (Andrew Howard), a so-called communist in a silly costume who does little more than holler oaths about revenge. One assumes he and Looking Glass are there to remind you that this is a comic-related series. Yahya Abdul Mateen’s role as Angela’s husband also barely registers, with far too many flat, banally scripted domestic scenes. Occasionally there’s a heavyweight moment laden with portentous dialogue, such as when Angela tells her daughter that colours detract from the binary nature of the world, but it doesn’t chime with the viewer or evoke drama. Plus the direction is at times hurried and all over the place, with several glaring plot holes compromising credibility, while the performances are uneven at times, and certain scenes should’ve been left out completely.
There’s a lot to take in with these first two episodes, and little of it involves direction or cohesion. The cast, especially Don Johnson, don’t seem engaged, and yet there is enough here to merit further watching, at least for a bit longer. So far, it’s Louis Gossett Jr’s character that at least seems to be in on the joke (the show desperately needs more humour, and not from Irons’ daft panto villain). His subtle, knowing turn elicits some worthwhile scenes with King’s Angela that are reasonably compelling. One hopes that all the disparate plot strands find some way to converge, and that Lindelof doesn’t do a Lost on us – in the current television landscape, far more series get greenlit than before, but that does mean that audience loyalty is undermined if the dramatic hook isn’t good enough.
Watchmen is on Sundays on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK
here’s the trailer for the show too