Here’s the gist: Watchmen the book is about superheroes doing not-particularly-heroic deeds amidst growing concerns of the Cold War in a fairly dystopian America. Watchmen the show is the same thing, but replace the Cold War with race relations. And remove most of the superhero involvement. And make it uninteresting.
This assessment could be seen as unfair because Watchmen has eight more episodes to go, and it’s clearly building toward something. But this first episode is merely an hour of worldbuilding with no hooks and no cliffhangers. It’s good world building, but it provides no reason to care about the world or its inhabitants so far.
Watchmen starts in a movie theater. A black boy, alone, watches a movie in which a man dressed in white fights another man dressed in black. Onlookers are concerned, and the plot of the movie twists as they learn that neither men are truly what they seem. This is an allusion to the rest of the episode and, likely, the rest of the series as a whole. The theater and the streets outside suddenly erupt in violence as it is revealed that it is 1921 during the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot. The KKK, aided by the local authorities, commits a mass murder of the black Tulsa residents. This is a powerful and horrific scene, but since there’s no context this early in the show, its only effect is shock. Lots of flash, but no substance. It’s horrific, to be sure. It’s just not interesting. The boy turns up later, but not in a surprising or interesting way.
Fast forward to 2019. A white man in a truck is pulled over by a police officer. He is being recorded. The black officer is wearing a yellow bandana that completely covers his face from the nose down. The black officer recognizes that the driver is a member of a white supremacist terrorist group. He radios headquarters and requests authorization to access his gun – in this dystopian world, officers’ faces are covered but they can’t access their guns without authorization, I guess – and it’s too late. The officer is shot to death by the driver.
Again, horrific, just not that interesting.
The first episode continues in this fashion. A black guest speaker for career day (a baker) shows kids how to separate the egg yolks from the whites, while delivering an on-the-nose allegory for segregation. At this point, we are shown the underside of the bowl as the yolks slide into a familiar smiley face with a red splotch in the upper-left, resembling the iconic button from the book.
At one point in the show, it rains tiny squids everywhere. The squids melt and fall apart as soon as they land, indicating perhaps they were manufactured – that is, created but not alive. Perhaps an unintended leftover from Ozymandias’s genetic monstrosity? Or perhaps an intentional, constant reminder of the looming, otherworldly monster? Apparently, squid rain has become a regular occurrence, because none of the characters on the show seemed to think much of this odd weather phenomenon, and so neither did I.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE INDIFFERENT
There are plenty of things to like about the show, though. Easter eggs abound: a newspaper headline exclaims “Veidt Officially Declared Dead.” The book Under the Hood can be seen sitting atop the chief of police’s desk. At one point, the chief tells a masked subordinate “pull your face down,” a parallel to Rorschach referring to his mask as his face. Someone swallows a poison capsule. A poster on the wall in the classroom labeled “Important Presidents” lists George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, and Robert Redford, who we learn has served for at least 30 years.
The production values are what we have come to expect from HBO by now. The special effects are great. I loved the chase in the sky with a version of the Owlship and its flamethrower. I loved the watch references and transitions. The overhead shot of folks sitting around a dinner table, evenly-spaced like the numbers on a clock, while ticking can be heard in the background was gorgeous and clever, much like the panels in the book itself. The dialog is clever, and it is delivered adequately, if not remarkably.
However, the production values are also lazy. The clack-clack of a shotgun doesn’t mean you’re cocking it, it means you’re reloading it, which means the main character was just ejecting live ammo all over the place. The chief of police sneaks off to do a bump of coke during a dinner with friends and is caught, but this isn’t discussed or explored further. Why was this scene included in the show? Am I supposed to care? It felt forced and then dropped.
Finally, Jeremy Irons is a terrific actor, but his scene, in which he plays a quirky lord of a faraway castle, is jarring. Neither his identity or purpose are revealed, nor is his relevance to anything in the rest of the show. Presumably, he’s an aging Ozymandias celebrating the anniversary of his squid drop in New York City with a beautiful pocket watch and a cake. But something is amiss. When his servant offers him a horseshoe to cut it with, is that an indication that Ozy is going mad? Between this scene, the scene in which he gets his thighs massaged by another servant, and the scene in which he declares he’s writing a play for his servants, Jeremy Irons shines as a weird non sequitur who does not hold my interest.
Watchmen the book starts with The Comedian’s murder. Rorschach spends the first issue warning his superpowered former colleagues that someone may be targeting superheroes, and Rorschach attempts to squeeze each of them for info as to the killer’s identity. Reading the book felt like witnessing the inescapable approach of a doomsday, step by ominous, bleak step. Watching the first episode of Watchmen, however, felt like witnessing some racist jerks in Oklahoma be mean, and then witnessing some cops retaliating. The book threatened annihilation. The show, at least so far, threatens some gang violence in a city of 400k people.
Watchmen is clearly a slow burn and hopefully it will have a big payoff. I can definitely see myself loving this series as it progresses. For now, though, it just doesn’t make me care.