HBO’s newest buzzy drama launches today as Damon Lindelof (Lost) brings us a sequel of sorts to Watchmen. I say “of sorts” because it’s not a direct sequel to the original comic, according to the creative team. Instead, it’s a completely new story set in the same universe. I mean, a completely new story that refers to the original source material fairly often and includes a handful of characters from the original source material. But it’s not a sequel.
Watchmen is a hugely entertaining, albeit an increasingly dark, series. Set primarily in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the action revolves around a long-standing skirmish between local police and a group of white supremacists called “The Seventh Calvary” whose members wear masks inspired by Rorschach from the original comic. Regina King stars as Angela Abar, a retired member of the police force who still fights crime anonymously in mask as Sister Night.
It would be a huge spoiler to reveal the central plot of the first few episodes, so clearly I won’t do that. Needless to say, the overall series is filled with compelling scenes, great performances, and gorgeous cinematography. My one nit with it, so far, is that it is oppressively dark at times. One performance does help to brighten the air, but this particular performer is quickly disposed of by the end of Episode 1. Fortunately, the great Jean Smart appears later in the series and breathes some sorely needed new life into it at the right moment.
Critics are reacting very well to the series so far. Initial reviews according to Metacritic average an 85, which puts it on the higher end of prestige dramas. Succession Season 2 rates an 88, to put it in perspective. Watchmen hits some intense social notes that, if you look at it a certain way, could parallel our modern era, so it’s positioned for awards attention if audiences buy into it. One major thing going for it is that you don’t exactly have to know a lot about the original source material to appreciate this television spin. It helps, of course, but Lindelof’s Watchmen stands on its own as a compelling piece of thought-provoking entertainment. Something I’m going to sit with for a few weeks is how this series – technically a comic book adaptation – takes a very serious look at American history and it’s relationship to African American rage.
But on the awards front, the trick is whether or not HBO will classify it as a Drama Series or a Limited Series. Lindelof and the creative team have been cagey about whether or not there will be a Season 2. Personally, I think HBO’s very conflicted about where it wants to campaign Watchmen. They definitely have Damon Lindelof, a brand name in film and television, to appease. The trouble is, if Watchmen is a Drama Series, then it has to compete against second seasons of Big Little Lies and Succession, which is hotter than ever if you even casually glance at Twitter. And then spring presumably brings Westworld Season 3. There’s also His Dark Materials premiering in November.
I mean, we all heard HBO wanted to compete against Netflix, but that is an embarrassment of riches.
Everyone’s looking for the follow-up to Game of Thrones, and for a while, many presumed that to be Westworld. But Westworld doubled down on its inverted plot and became increasingly difficult to follow in Season 2. While we haven’t seen His Dark Materials yet (and don’t ignore that one – Ruth Wilson is way overdue for Emmy love), Watchmen may be the better, more accessible, series to inherit the throne. That is, of course, depending on where HBO chooses later in the Emmy season to campaign it. We should know something in a few weeks as they test the waters with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Golden Globes.
No matter where the series itself lands, the cast offers strong possibilities for awards attention. First and foremost, never count out Regina King. I’ve made that mistake once or twice. Never again will I. She’s a force to be reckoned with for sure. Her Angela Abar / Sister Night is an intense, angry, passionate force of a nature, an antecedent of racial strife decades before her. She will factor strongly into every Lead Actress category for the next year. People love her, and they will want to celebrate her as she leads a huge new buzzy series.
In the supporting races, two performances stood out for me. First, Tim Blake Nelson, often the most underrated performance in nearly everything he’s in, offers a quiet world-weariness in his role as Looking Glass. He starts in the background but has a standout episode midway the season that digs into his backstory. Nelson’s performance in this episode is among some of the best work he’s ever done. Many are predicting Jeremy Irons due to his pedigree, but his role as Adrian Veidt (the original Ozymandias) as written is exceedingly bizarre. He’s not boring at all, but it takes a long time for his purpose to gel.
The second stand out is the aforementioned great Jean Smart. I *think* her role is something of a spoiler, so I won’t say it here. I suspect you can find it online if you try. Jean Smart is nearly the best thing in anything she’s in, and she gives Regina King a run for her money here. I’d love to see her finally get the awards attention she’s long deserved, and this could be the right role to do it.
Overall, Watchmen worked for me on multiple levels. It’s more accessible and less “look how smart I am” than Westworld. It’s a super hero series that, dare I say it, even Martin Scorsese could get behind. That’s because it has more on its mind than super powers. It deftly handles themes about dealing with the past, fearing the future, and fighting the present. I think it will ultimately stand out as a strong awards contender, particularly with the Television Academy. Don’t be surprised if the Golden Globes or SAG ignores it. It’s going to take longer than both voting bodies have to absorb and fully appreciate it.