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'Watchmen' review: Challenging, occasionally thrilling version of the comic series

Regina King in a scene from "Watchmen," premiering

Regina King in a scene from "Watchmen," premiering on Oct. 20 on HBO. Credit: HBO/Mark Hill

SERIES "Watchmen"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

 

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's late spring, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the white citizenry is laying waste to the African American part of the city known as Greenwood. Hundreds of blacks are killed, but before his own parents are slaughtered, a little boy is smuggled out of town carrying a piece of paper that reads "take care of this boy." That boy grows up to be a Boston cop, Cal Abar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, "The Get Down"). Fast Forward to present-day Tulsa, where Det. Angela Abar (Regina King, "American Crime") is a detective with the police force, also someone with a secret identity and powers that should be helpful in the fight against a white-supremacist group, the 7th Kalvary. The cops — led by chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) — wear masks, as do members of the 7th, so they can't recognize one another. Meanwhile, an eccentric Lord of an English country estate, Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), has a bearing on what's happening in Tulsa; and FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) eventually turns up to help solve a murder and mystery.

 In this alt-history world, Robert Redford (who doesn't appear) is president, and Vietnam is a state. This Damon Lindelof ("Lost") series is roughly based on the classic 1986-87 comic series by Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins.


 

MY SAY Because "Watchmen" just might be the most important HBO launch since "Game of Thrones" in 2011, a hypothetical analogy seems in order, so here goes: What if instead of adapting George R.R. Martin's novels, HBO played loose (really loose) with the source material, and turned it into something entirely different. Oh sure, there'd still be dragons, but Jon Snow would the bad guy, and Dany wouldn't be in it at all, and …

Well, hopefully you get the idea. This "Watchmen" isn't "Watchmen." It isn't even an adaptation of Zack Snyder's 2009 big-screen adaptation. Superfans of the classic graphic novel series will be furious, but they don't really count anyway. They were furious with Snyder too, and would probably be furious with any adaptation.

That leaves you. What will you think about this? You, my friend, will be flummoxed but "flummoxed" just happens to be the price of entry here, also the draw, and potentially the reward. "Watchmen" demands that you watch (or in some cases muddle) through the next scene or next episode. Answers lie just out of reach, occasionally logic, too. 

This "Watchmen" is classic Lindelof — the Lindelof of "Lost" and "The Leftovers" who wants to explore big ideas by deploying every literary trick of the trade. Allusions, tangents, touchstones, symbols and metaphors amplify some deeper theme which may lead to a profound revelation about the meaning of history or perhaps life. It's Big Think TV all right, but as usual, we're left to wonder whether Lindelof may have chewed off more than he (or we) can reasonably swallow. 

There's your caveat emptor (or emptors). But what may seem most off-putting about this "Watchmen" may also be what's best -- and intermitently exhilarating -- about it, too. In lieu of a facsimile, this series instead embraces the core idea of the original, or as Lindelof said in a recent Esquire interview, it begins with an "unsolvable" problem which even superheroes ("watchmen") can't solve.

 In the comics and movie, that was nuclear war; in the TV series, it's racism. By starting off with the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, this "Watchmen" immediately, viscerally, reorients viewers to the right-here-right-now, where a nation's past crimes remain embedded, like an unmovable boulder, in the present.

Alternate histories force us to examine real history from a different perspective, with the implicit idea that "real" is weirder than "alternate."   This "Watchmen" forces the perspective on viewers that real-world racism is more bizarre, more horrifying, than a TV series could possibly re-imagine. If that makes "Watchmen" hard to watch, it just might make it necessary to watch,too. 


 

BOTTOM LINE No, this isn't your father's (or mother's) "Watchmen," but something new, occasionally thrilling too. Just not consistently so. 

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