Shocking. That’s easily the best descriptor to sum up the opening of the new HBO series Watchmen.
If the name sounds familiar, it might be because of the Zack Snyder film a decade ago, which was in turn an adaptation of a seminal 12-issue DC Comics series from the mid ’80s. The comic takes place in an alternate version of our world where the point of divergence is 1938. Masked heroes (some might say vigilantes) have won the Vietnam War for the American side,
thanks to Dr. Manhattan, a god-like character born from a scientific experiment.
At its heart, the comic is a murder mystery. One of the Watchmen is murdered at the beginning and we spend the 12 issues finding out the who and why, all with the backdrop of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The HBO series is a sequel that primarily takes place in Tulsa 34 years after the events of the comic. The location is significant because of that shocking opening scene: The Tulsa race riot of 1921. It’s a disturbing moment in
American history that is unknown, or at least not well known, by most of the population. I know it wasn’t covered in any of my history classes.
On May 31, 1921, a mob of white Tulsa residents attacked the city’s black Greenwood district, referred to as “Black Wall Street” because of the prosperity and wealth of the residents there. Officially, 36 were killed, although unofficial numbers put that number as high as 300, with thousands left homeless. This sets up the racial backdrop of the Tulsa of Watchmen. In it, police officers wear masks to protect their identity from the population they are trying to protect, and from the white supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry.
The main characters of the series are new creations by Damon Lindelof (of Lost and The Leftovers fame). That isn’t to say the original characters from the comic are absent; in fact, a few are supporting characters (at least through the third episode of the series). But the story is at its heart seen from the viewpoint of Angela Abar (Regina King), one of the masked police officers who has a murder mystery dumped in her lap in Episode One.
The cast of Watchmen is absolutely fantastic, and while it’s the story of Abar, it really is dependent on its ensemble; Louis Gossett Jr., playing Tulsa riot survivor Will Reeves, feeds the mystery of the story with his cryptic hints to Abar; Jeremy Irons is fantastically peculiar; and Jean Smart (introduced in Episode Three) has an inspiring performance that, I think, should lead to awards talk. The cast as a whole handles the challenging and uncomfortable material deftly.
Visually, there are beautiful references to the comic book (for those who are fans), and the breadth of cinematography is very cinematic. But being HBO, resolution is capped at 1080p. Luckily, I didn’t experience any of the godawful compression issues found during other HBO shows, even during some dark, nighttime fight sequences.
The Dolby Digital surround mix (the highest available through HBO Go or HBO Now) is very good. Action scenes filled my room while keeping my focus forward on the screen where it needed to be. The shining star of the mix, though, is the score composed by the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which expertly captures the mood of the show and helps drive its narrative forward.
For those who want a deeper dive, there’s a companion podcast, The Official Watchmen Podcast, hosted by Craig Mazin (writer and director of Chernobyl), joined by Lindelof. A new installment is released every third series episode, and each one adds some interesting insight into the creation process.
Watchmen is not for the faint of heart, and those unfamiliar with the source material might be thrown for a loop at times, but hang in there. The storytelling is top-notch to match the excellent acting and score.