When you adapt a series with as much history as the Watchmen, it can be very easy to screw it up. Executive producer and (television) series creator Damon Lindelof knows this, which is why everything about the pilot is very careful. If you’ve read a review of the Watchmen series premiere before Sunday night, that reviewer likely watched two-thirds of the show, six of nine episodes. For the rest of us, we get an hour of story doled out to us per week.
Most review pieces extolled the virtue of the Watchmen series as perhaps one of the best in the “prestige” television era, both honorary of the source material and fearlessly telling a necessary story about race and policing in the United States. Yet, people who just watched the premiere probably don’t quite see it the same way. In fact, I think it’s perfectly fine if you are very, very confused.
In this review of the Watchmen series premiere, we will get into spoiler territory but not until you see the picture of Looking Glass, who we are going to have to talk about. But first, let’s talk about what this series actually is and what it has to do with Dave Gibbons’ and Alan Moore’s genre-changing limited comic series. Because, on one hand, this series is the Watchmen in name only. Save for the always fun show-within-a-show, we are not introduced to any characters from the first iteration of the story. Rather, we get a tale about a white supremacist terrorist group going to war against police in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This fictional war will inevitably tie back into the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, a little-studied and shameful part of America’s history.
The Watchmen Series Premiere Takes Place in a World Much Different Than Ours
Image via HBO
The Watchmen series premiere starts in 1921, where we follow a young, black family as they try to escape the Tulsa riots. While much of the way this world operates is fictionalized and based on the comic series, this is a very real piece of American tragedy. From there, we skip ahead nearly 100 years to 2019, where a black police officer pulls over a white man driving a truck. It’s clear that this series wants to tell a story about racism and policing, yet what that message will be remains unclear. In this world, the police get to hide their identities, deceiving the public as a matter of policy. Yet, they also have restricted access to firearms and appear to be more heavily regulated than actual police. The beat cops wear uniforms with yellow masks, but the “detectives” in this police force are full-on costumes.
Regina King plays Angela Abar, who runs a bakery in her cover identity. In her uniform, she’s Sister Night, a leather-clad asskicker dressed like a nun. Tim Blake Nelson plays Looking Glass, a man with an eerie mirrored mask, and Andrew Howard plays Red Scare, a Russian-accented officer on the force. Don Johnson plays Chief of Police Judd Crawford, whose identity is apparently public knowledge. (Also Jeremy Irons plays an unnamed aristocrat, which we’ll discuss further in the spoilers part of the Watchman series premiere review.)
While we do get to see them in action, the rest of the show is about getting to know Crawford and Abar as people. We are meant to sympathize with them, which makes sense since they are our heroes. Yet, any Watchmen fan knows that the heroes are rarely that simple.
There are more questions than answers, which means it’s time for spoilers. Come back to our Watchmen series premiere review after you watch the pilot, if you want to keep the mystery alive.
No One Is Watching the Watchmen, Except on TV
Image via screengrab
When it comes to nods to the original comic series, The Watchmen series premiere makes more than a few. We see that there is a livestream of Doctor Manhattan on Mars on television. Apparently, he opted to stay on the red planet rather than finding another galaxy, as he did in the comics. We also see Jeremy Irons living on an estate with two very curious servants, celebrating an anniversary. The show doesn’t say it, but Lindelof confirmed in some interviews that he’s playing Adrian Veidt or Ozymandias. There are two other major moments that show us we are in the Watchmen universe.
The first is that Tulsa police seems to have an airship that is based on the technology used to power Archie, Owlman’s ship. Unless Judd Crawford is actually Dan Dreiberg in hiding (doubtful), it doesn’t make sense for him to have the owlship. It makes more sense that in the wake of Owlman’s retirement, the technology that powered Archie was made available to the military and the police. The final Easter egg is a television series called American Hero Story that apparently will be telling the tale of the original Minutemen.
Image via DC
Meanwhile, the modern-day Watchmen, namely the police, get to operate in secret. They hide their identities and lie to the public as a matter of policy, such as when police are hurt in the line of duty. One can almost understand what a group like the Rorschach-worshipping 7th Calvary exists and wants to fight the police. Yet, rather than libertarian minded militias, they are a group of white supremacists. There is no question that these villains are pure evil. Fans may be angry that these terrorists use Rorschach’s face as the face of their movement, but it tracks. Rorschach’s internal monologue shows him to be not just a racist, but also sexist and homophobic as well.
Damon Lindelof Has Been Waiting to Pull Off a Twist Like This Since LOST
Image via HBO
One of the biggest names in the cast, other than the legendary Lou Gossett, Jr., is Don Johnson. As the Watchmen series premiere rolled on, I noticed something. Most of Johnson’s character’s promo moments happened in this episode. In the last minutes of the pilot episode, Crawford is killed off, hanged from a tree. Angela Abar finds his body, after being called to the scene by a wheelchair-bound Gossett, Jr. He plays the same boy from the opening of the episode. It’s a very ballsy play to end this episode with the lynching of a white police officer with a black man as the only suspect. The series trailer reel gives away that Abar doesn’t think he’s guilty of the crime, but it’s strange nonetheless. Still, the idea behind this move is one that dates back to the early days of LOST.
When Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams were rewriting Jeffrey Lieber’s original script for the show, they toyed with an idea. They wanted to hire Michael Keaton, who everyone would assume was the lead. Then, in the first episode, they wanted to kill him off to show that any character could die on the island at any time. Finally, Lindelof pulled off this sort of shocking moment with Johnson’s character. (Though, he will almost certainly pop up in flashbacks.) It seems that Crawford was something of a hero to his fellow officers, and we all know how Watchmen treats heroes.
Watchmen Series Premiere Review Grade: A Promising Start
Image via screengrab
As just a pilot episode of television, this episode is fantastic. It offers more questions than answers. The premiere establishes characters we care about. It sets up a world that promises whatever happens next will be interesting. This series bears the name of a beloved deconstruction of the superhero genre. It’s unclear what this show will deconstruct. If you take away the costumes, putting the cops in just ski masks, essentially everything would be the same. What makes this Watchmen remains to be seen. However, that will likely become clearer once Jean Smart’s Laurie Blake (the former Silk Spectre) shows up.
Still, a cop show that treats white supremacy as terrorism is an original story. That alone justifies watching the show. If there are any fears about this show, it’s the source material could take away from an already compelling story.
What did you think of the Watchmen series premiere? Leave your reviews, concerns, or theories in the comments below!
Featured image via HBO
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.