Adapting the work of Alan Moore has always posed challenges to even the most well-intentioned of directors and writers, even Zack Snyder’s brave attempt to bring Moore’s most famous graphic novel (deemed to be “unfilmable”) in 2009 still largely missed the mark. HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, is the antithesis of the slavishly-devoted comic book-to-film adaptation, as challenging and intellectually-rewarding as the source material, and might be the best show of 2019.
Taking place in modern-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lindelof’s Watchmen serves as something of a sequel to the graphic novel. Superheroes have existed but have been outlawed, though the Tulsa police are allowed to wear masks and protect their identities against the white supremacist organization the 7th Kavalry (who have appropriated the iconic Rorschach mask). A murder reignites tension between the two and is the starting point for detective Angela Abar (Regina King), aka Sister Night, and her investigation not just into the “vast and insidious conspiracy” unfolding in Tulsa, but also her own family history.
There’s a lot to take with Watchmen’s alternate history: the only truly superpowered individual has fled earth, Robert Redford has been president for decades, Vietnam is a state, and people brace for alien squids falling out of the sky like raindrops. It’s a lot of weirdness to deal with, piled on top of the graphic novel’s considerably-realized world. It doesn’t require reading the graphic novel, and the plot and characters largely stand on their own. In that same vein, Lindelof is less interested in reproducing the world splashed across the pages of the graphic novel and instead cherrypicks key characters and concepts that mesh the best with what’s going on in 2019 Tulsa.
Watchmen is just as concerned with finding the reasons why individuals decide to don masks and the series recontextualizes this need within the psychic trauma inflicted on Tulsa during a true-life massacre in 1921 that devastated the black citizens of an affluent district. The scars of racism are still setting off shockwaves decades later, and anyone putting on a mask is doing so in response to that trauma (whether it be to fight for justice, inequality, or as a shield against the trauma itself).
It’s a pretty bold way to reinterpret such a mainstay of superhero deconstruction, and despite juggling multiple timelines and some truly bonkers concepts, somehow never loses sight of the core concept that some of America’s earliest vigilantes were hooded klansmen. The concept never devolves into the show sermonizing or becoming predictable (the story is anything but), but instead thoughtfully commenting on how racism in this alternate timeline may have affected events.
The acting is top-notch all around and Regina King shoulders the many facets of detective Abar’s double life wonderfully, making detective Abar/Sister Night a truly multi-layered character. Serving as the everywoman of the series, she grapples with Abar’s haunted history and has perhaps the most realistic reactions to some of the more insane moments.
Perhaps the most inspired casting choice though is Jeremy Irons as the older Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, the architect of the graphic novel’s shocking finale. In what seems like a plot entirely disconnected from the main story, Veidt simmers in what looks like a demented Downton Abby-esque manor plotting an escape. Irons’ Ozymandias is one teetering on the edge of madness and megalomania, prone to constant self-aggrandizement, it’s a delight to see what kind of scheme he’ll come up with next and is quite a unique take on the character.
The superhero genre reaches the level of prestige television with Watchmen‘s first season. It stands tall as one of the finest debuts of any show of 2019, maybe so good it’s difficult to imagine a follow-up season matching the quality of the storytelling and realization of the elaborate world that’s been expanded on. Nothing comes close to the richness of its themes nor the airtightness of its plotting and pacing in the superhero genre or any other new series for that matter.