When Game Of Thrones ended it felt like the era of prestige genre TV was over. Then along came Watchmen in the closing weeks of 2019 to remind us of the power of weekly event television. What is even more remarkable was that Watchmen was the show no-one thought they wanted.
Watchmen the comic is as sacred as you can get, thanks in part to co-creator Alan Moore’s vocal disapproval of sequels or spin-offs. When Damon Lindelof announced that his HBO Watchmen show was going to be a sequel rather than an adaptation people were even more bewildered. Who would watch a Watchmen that didn’t feature the likes of Rorschach or The Comedian?
The answer is, actually, not a huge amount of people – to begin with, at least. Then word began to spread that, somehow, this sequel no-one wanted was good. Astonishingly good, to be precise. Taking place some 34 years since the events of the original comic series, Watchmen began as a series with very little connection to the source material, focusing on new character Angela Abar (Regina King), a masked cop taking on the Rorschach-inspired Seventh Kavalry in Tulsa. Meanwhile, Jeremy Irons was rattling around in a manor house with some very odd servants.
But as the show went on it began to delicately unfold its mysteries, introducing old faces – Jean Smart’s Laurie has quit being a vigilante in favour of hunting them down for the FBI – and revealing that some had been hiding in plain sight all along. Angela, it turns out, is not just a random new character. She’s sitting in the middle of the past, present and future of masked heroes in America,
The whole cast are simply wonderful, with King and Smart as early stand-outs, Irons on his best unglamorous, snarky form and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II marking himself out as a star.
The show’s decision to focus on new characters, like Angela and her fellow cop ‘Looking Glass’ (Tim Blake Nelson), wasn’t the only surprise Lindelof had in store for us. The original Watchmen tackled hot-button issues around the fear of nuclear war. In this sequel, Lindelof has chosen to explore the way endemic racism has manifested itself throughout the last 100 years of American history, and the legacy it has left on the world. If that doesn’t sound like the basis for a superhero show, then you’re right: this isn’t a superhero show, anymore than Watchmen was a superhero comic. The show reminds us that wearing a mask is not a heroic act – it is an act of fear, anger or narcissism. It’s telling that the closer Angela comes to doing heroic deeds, the less she wears her costume.
Not only is the show politically articulate and confident, but its style is remarkable. From images of Laurie cleverly framed in front of some Dave Gibbons-esque artwork, to an incredible time-jumping episode giving us a walk-through of the painful history of Hooded Justice, the show astounds with its visual storytelling. This is a series that finally treats a comic book with the same intelligence, wit and artistic flair that the source material has, rather than dumbing it down.
Watchmen is not only a sequel that easily matches its precursor, but it’s also an important addition to the dramatic and political canon. This show says more about the black experience in America than any number of ‘serious’ dramas could – and it says it with a naked blue guy.
Watchmen is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.