Who will be watching Watchmen on HBO this fall? If airtime is any indication, the cable network is hoping that millions of us will. And if there is such a thing as a pole position for the waning days of appointment television, it would be Sundays at 9 p.m. Setting aside NFL Sunday Night Football, that has been the most-watched time slot for your favorite prestige television dramas. From The Sopranos to Game of Thrones and Westworld, HBO has ruled Sundays at 9 p.m. more often than not.
But AMC’s The Walking Dead has dominated the Sunday primetime for years. Game of Thrones didn't directly compete with the cable juggernaut, as each series aired new episodes during the other’s off-season. Yet, The Walking Dead has not sustained its high level of success in recent years. Season 9 saw some of its lowest ratings, bringing in about 4.5 million viewers per episode. Just for context, please note that any other TV show -- streaming or otherwise -- would kill for these numbers. The Walking Dead is vulnerable to a worthy challenger for the coveted 9 p.m. Sunday time slot. Premiering at exactly that time on Oct. 20 on HBO, Watchmen will go head-to-head with The Walking Dead this fall.
HBO’s Watchmen series, adapted by Damon Lindelof, stars Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jean Smart, Don Johnson, Sara Vickers and Louis Gossett Jr., among many others. It’s an ensemble cast with significant star power. Lindelof has been clear that his adaptation is not a reboot. This iteration of Watchmen takes place 30 or more years after the events that took place in Alan Moore’s classic graphic series. The show should remain committed to the canonical themes established by the original, but Watchmen is a tricky intellectual property.
Alan Moore has never really invested himself in the film adaptations (or in this case television) or the many attempts to rehash the world of Watchmen in comics. But there are plenty of capable writers, directors and producers who can (and will) work with the source material to adapt it for television. What the creators have to do is nearly impossible. The nostalgia that Watchmen readers have for the original is rooted in the experience of reading the original in the mid-to-late 1980s.
For these readers, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was a radical reordering of the superhero comic book genre. The stories were dark, revisionist and complex. But the boon of the Watchmen graphic novel was that it deconstructed the very concept of being a superhero. It also re-envisioned what a superhero comic book could be. And it did these things such that the reading of every other work in the superhero genre after had to be considered in relation to it. Will HBO’s version of Watchmen be able to achieve these feats within the superhero television genre? Probably not. But it might not have to. For comic-to-TV fans, even the possibility that HBO’s Watchmen might redeem the intellectual property from the movie hell in which it has been languishing is enough to pique interest.
Meanwhile, The Walking Dead is probably looking at its swan song. Viewers’ waning interest in the series might be the result of many factors. It is entering its 10th season. That is a long time for any TV show. But it has also shed more than a few major characters who were well-liked by viewing audiences. There is also the fact that the entire concept of “appointment TV” is in flux. Just a few years ago, appointment TV was pronounced dead. But with Netflix shifting some of its content to the serial format, it is clear that show bingeing is not as dominant as the streamers and cordcutters initially thought.
When you look at the viewership numbers for The Walking Dead, the decline seems to start after the brutal introduction of Negan. For the avid readers of The Walking Dead comic, the brutal murders executed by Negan were expected. But for the majority of the TV viewers the mangling of Glen on screen was too much. And that is saying a lot for a show that is as about as violent as television can be.
HBO’s Watchmen will likely have its own fair share of brutality and violence. The question will be whether or not comic-to-TV fans are ready to put The Walking Dead to bed and gear up for a new attempt at adapting a timeless classic. Tick tock. Only time will tell.
Developed by Damon Lindelof, HBO's Watchmen stars Jeremy Irons, Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tom Mison, James Wolk, Adelaide Clemens, Andrew Howard, Frances Fisher, Jacob Ming-Trent, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing, Lily Rose Smith and Adelynn Spoon. The series will premiere Oct. 20.