Showrunner Damon Lindelof raised eyebrows last month when he said HBO's Watchmen would avoid "moralizing" with its social commentary, a surprising contention given the political source material. The Lost co-creator later attempted to clarify his statement, pointing to the nature of Ozymandias, perhaps only clouding the matter. But make no mistake, the new drama does moralize, even as it explores morally gray characters. Watchmen is complex and unabashedly political, and it's all the better for it.
Set 34 years after the events of the seminal 1986-1987 comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen presents a world shaped by those characters and events, and by America's history of racism. It's a world a lot like ours, but different: the United States won the Vietnam War, and that country became the 51st state; Robert Redford has been president since 1993, succeeding Richard Nixon from the comic; and the defining tragedy of a generation isn't 9/11, but instead the sudden appearance of a giant squid-like creature in Manhattan on Nov. 4, 1985, which resulted in the deaths of 3 million.
It's against that backdrop that the series unfolds, only in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has endured more than its share of tragedy -- the historical 1921 Tulsa race riot, which opens the series, and the fictional White Night, in which city police and their families were slaughtered in their homes by members of the white-supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry. The former sets the tone for Watchmen's examination of race relations, and begins an intergenerational origin story, while the latter explains why Tulsa's police now wear masks and maintain secret identities.
Among the few survivors of the White Night is Regina King's Det. Angela Abar, who by all outward appearances is a retired cop turned baker and homemaker (she and her husband adopted three children of slain officers). But she secretly continued her career on the police force as Sister Night, working alongside the likes of Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), Pirate Jenny (Jessica Camacho) and Red Scare (Andrew Howard). In a world in which masked heroes are outlawed, the Tulsa police are costumed vigilantes, using extralegal means to maintain order.
When the Seventh Kavalry, who embrace the imagery of Watchmen's Rorschach, resurface three years after the Christmas Eve massacre, it begins a chain of events, and complicated web of conspiracies, with Angela at the center. As if that weren't difficult enough for Sister Night to navigate, her path is further complicated by the arrival of sardonic FBI Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), better known as the second Silk Spectre.
However, she's not the only character from the comics who appears, or is otherwise referenced, in the six episodes provided by HBO for review. It's no spoiler to say that Jeremy Irons plays Adrian Veidt; the network already gave up on any attempt to hide that. Doctor Manhattan also looms large in the minds of people, Laurie in particular, in this alternate-history America, despite making his home on Mars. To mention the other figures who play a role, minor or otherwise, would ruin some of the surprise.
Although much of Watchmen centers on the characters played by King and Smart, both of whom shine, these six episodes are marked with strong performances by Nelson, whose Looking Glass is far more nuanced than he first seems; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) as Angela's loving husband Cal; and Louis Gossett Jr. as ... well, we won't give away that mystery.
Watchmen doesn't spoon-feed its audience; there's no convenient montage to get viewers up to speed on the history of this world, or even who some of the players are. Instead, we have to glean clues from dialogue, newspaper headlines and flashbacks to piece together the setting. Still, although the drama doesn't require us to be steeped in the source material, it certainly rewards those familiar with the comics. If you're confused by an incongruous event -- say, "squidfall" -- don't worry, it will make sense soon enough. Well, sort of.
There were a lot of risks attached to adapting one of the most influential comic books of all time, and Lindelof went to great lengths to calm fears and quell criticism before production even began, assuring that this Watchmen wouldn't be a "retread" of the source material, but rather a remix. While we might quibble about how much it actually remixes Moore and Gibbons' comic, the HBO drama does, as Lindelof promised, regard that work as "sacred ground." Those 12 issues are canon, treated as history. Although the TV series looks at some of the comic's characters through a different lens, its chief concern is how its events continue to shape the world some three decades later.
Lindelof's Watchmen is bold, creative and challenging, maintaining a faithfulness to the source material, or its spirit, at least, without being overly reverential (we're looking at you, Zack Snyder). It's fully realized, engaging and, yes, weird, but in all of the right ways (squidfall!). It will undoubtedly alienate some viewers, and even piss off more than a few fans of the comic, as Lindelof himself predicted. However, we'd be disappointed if it didn't.
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 premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.