Is it ever OK to take something and completely reimagine it, leaving only the original name unaltered? I’m asking for a friend about their Tinder profile — but also for HBO’s eagerly anticipated new show “Watchmen,” which uses the revered 1986-87 comic book as a starting point and then takes us on a weird and wonderful journey, like a Waze gone rogue.
That the person in the driver’s seat is Damon Lindelof should come as no surprise. After all, this is the man who (along with Carlton Cuse) gave us “Lost,” that game-changing head trip of a show that never met a wormhole it didn’t want to dive into. (For an indication of that show’s enduring appeal nearly a decade after it left our screens, just check out the number of podcasts dedicated to it — the latest being the excellent “Through the Looking Glass,” with Tara Bennett and Maureen Ryan.)
Lindelof followed “Lost” with his 2014-2017 adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers,” which followed the book relatively faithfully for the first season and then went totally gonzo in seasons two and three, thus creating one of the greatest shows of the 21st century – a spiritual exploration of faith, hope, love and loss in a godless world.
But where “The Leftovers” the novel has admirers, “Watchmen” the comic book has disciples. For fans of Alan Moore (who co-created the comic book with Dave Gibbons, for DC Comics), the only difference between him and God is that they are sure Alan Moore exists. “Watchmen” inspires such worship that Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation was crazily faithful to it — to the point where the only things seemingly missing from the original were speech bubbles and page numbers. And at 215 minutes, the film’s ultimate cut seemed at pains to prove one of the key themes of “Watchmen”: Nothing ever ends.
So what to make of Lindelof’s “Watchmen,” which has already been critically acclaimed, but, if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed, failed to win over audiences?
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Lindelof’s approach to the source material actually reminds me of the Bob Dylan lyric that served as the inspiration for Moore and Gibbons’ original: “At midnight all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do.” In a lifetime of mind-bending lyrics, Dylan’s for “Desolation Row” arguably tops them all with its references to (among many others) Einstein, Robin Hood, Casanova, Ezra Pound, mermaids, calypso singers, et al — and just as Dylan’s imagination seems without end, so is Lindelof’s here.
Although his show is unrecognizable from the original, it is full of references to it — which means fans of the “Watchmen” comic book should have a field day gorging on all of the Easter eggs hidden away here. (There’s a particularly breathtaking nod to the original when a costume is found in a closet in episode two, providing one of the most jaw-dropping moments of the TV year.)
What is abundantly clear, though, is that every liberty Lindelof takes is coming from a place of love. He has called “Watchmen” the “greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced,” and, boy, does he have fun worshipping at the altar of that particular comic book bible.
I haven’t seen a show adopt such a playful attitude to such a serious subject since, well, “The Leftovers.”
If Snyder’s “Watchmen” was a facsimile of the original, Lindelof’s version is nothing less than a glorious remix. It’s an approach that might even find favor with Moore himself — well, if he ever finds it possible to say anything positive about anything ever again. (As with the film, Moore’s name is completely absent from the credits; only Gibbons is listed as the comic book’s co-creator.)
Where the alternative universe in the original “Watchmen” was a 1985 where U.S. President Richard Nixon was serving a fourth consecutive term in office and America had won the Vietnam War, here the action is relocated to 2019 Tulsa and a land riven by racial tension. (I won’t spoil the joke by revealing who the current American president is, but it made me laugh out loud when I first spotted a poster out of the corner of my eye.)
In this world where black is almost literally white, the cops all cover their faces for fear of recognition — most using a cloth with a Pantone hue that can only be described as “Watchmen Yellow” — with the southern American city bedeviled by white supremacists belonging to the so-called Seventh Kavalry.
In one of the show’s many twists on the original, these modern-day Klansmen all wear the same black-and-white stained face hood as that worn by Rorschach in the original. Full disclosure: What I love most about the original DC Comics version is the Rorschach character, whose brutal actions allow people to see what they want in him based on their own beliefs. How else to explain that those polar political opposites Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have both previously given shout-outs to the antihero? (Cruz even called the vicious vigilante one of his favorite superheroes of all time, which probably shouldn’t surprise us.)
Lindelof’s series also offers teasing references to other “Watchmen” characters, which it would be remiss of me to spoil. However, I did love the way the original’s Minutemen — those formative “costumed heroes” who fought crime in the 1940s, and to whom “The Incredibles” owes some serious royalties — are introduced via a cheesy television show-within-a-show with the most hilariously over-the-top warning about a show’s content ever. It’s deliciously campy, with superheroes like Hooded Justice proclaiming lines like “Who am I? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be wearing a fucking mask!”
It is also not much of a spoiler to reveal that Dr. Manhattan – the victim of a nuclear accident who became the United States’ secret weapon in the original – is still on Mars at the start of this show. Perhaps the only surprise is that Lindelof hasn’t had him appearing in some Vegas residence with the Blue Man Group in the meantime.
While all of the references to the original are fun, the new “Watchmen” also owes a lot to one woman: Regina King (a leftover from “The Leftovers”), who plays a bad-ass Tulsa cop who is also a bad-ass superhero, Sister Knight. It’s a powerhouse performance that roots all of the show’s craziness in “some” kind of reality.
And this is one crazy show. How crazy? Well, episode one draws heavily on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cornball hit musical “Oklahoma!” and the second episode starts in World War I Germany. Seriously, I expect that giant blimp of Gary Busey from “The Leftovers” to come floating into shot at any moment. It also has some killer one-liners (you may not know it yet, but you will soon be laughing out loud to “Were there any croutons?”)
If you’ve never read “Watchmen,” I you will still enjoy the fearlessness of the show, which wrestles with some of the biggest problems in modern American society in truly audacious fashion any may even go on to surpass the original.
In answer to the famous question “Who watches the ‘Watchmen’?” — I do, and you should too.