Like many who read the graphic novel, I didn’t think Watchmen needed any kind of update. The graphic novel captured a moment in time of the fears of the 1980s combined with a great deal of United States history (even with it being an altered timeline), compelling characters, and a great arc with surprises that you couldn’t see coming, but altogether ended up working. With a strong ending that felt complete despite being ambiguous about the future, there was little need for either a follow up or any other exploration. Plus the fact that the graphic novel’s creator Alan Moore is very vocal in his dislike of any adaptation of his work, the idea that HBO would attempt an adaptation had its problems.
However, after one episode, I was hooked, and it never disappointed the whole way through. While taking heavily from the universe of Watchmen, it never became an imitation. The characters both old from the graphic novel and new ones for the show meld together remarkably well. No old character is there for nostalgic purposes; they have an important role in the new storyline. For graphic novel readers, Jean Smart’s portrayal feels like what could happen to the character Laurie, while for people just seeing her for the first time she is simply the quick-witted, bitter cop played to perfection. Both ways work for a viewer and that is a remarkable achievement. Seeing her tell a joke with a very surprising laugh at the end was an incredible moment.
The new characters are equally important and are given their own intriguing backstories. Be it Tim Blake Nelson, shown as a cop Wade working a case in his reflective mask observing suspects, or standing in his bomb shelter and seeing what drove him to be in there. Or Hong Chau as Lady Trieu saying, “O yeah, of course I am,” a simple phrase but with her way of saying it and who she says it to showing so much about her and just how badass she really is. Anchored the whole way by Regina King at her most powerhouse both as an actually fighting superhero but also as any individual who just wants to know the truth about what is going on around her.
The story it is telling takes tropes from the graphic novel that make it the show’s own, which again enhance the story and are little Easter eggs for readers of the graphic novel that also serve a purpose narratively. The TV miniseries on the original superheroes is a take from the comic a kid is reading within Watchmen, which gives its own inner story that, like the graphic novel’s story in a story, gives a deeper context to what is going on but makes it firmly its own story.
Then, instead of the 1980s issues of superpowers’ saber rattling, it is racism in America both past and current. We are able to see the many different historical connections to America’s racist past and how racism is still with us and how it has changed in some ways but still remains just as poisonous. This is a tough subject on any day, and to mix it with already beloved material is incredibly difficult, but the storytelling makes it look easy. One of the most impressive goals is to avoid getting preachy yet never taking racism lightly. We see how insidious racism can be on different levels, and different extremes that it takes to fight it but, on the other hand, we also see a new version of the Ku Klux Klan getting beaten up by a black woman.
Damon Lindelof has been rightfully praised for taking one of the most complex and beloved graphic novels of all time and creating something new with it that is different but just as compelling as the source material (maybe even better). The show itself has also been praised for its timeliness with the Black Lives Matter movement, and in showing the deeper historical roots of racism in this country. These are all great points that lead to the inevitable statement that this was a great piece of television, period.