In 1921, the false arrest of a black teenager led to a massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District. Over the course of 24 hours, anywhere from a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred people were killed and many businesses were destroyed in a night of depraved violence. It is an event not taught in history class and rarely mentioned in popular culture. But it provides the opening for HBO’s new series, “Watchmen.” The harrowing scene on “Black Wall Street” sets the tone for the show and establishes the consequences this horrific act will have for our characters nearly 100 years later.
Three decades after the events of the comic, “Watchmen” is a story of the future of that timeline. The one in which Richard Nixon was President well into the 1980s and Robert Redford contemplated his own election bid. In 2019, President Redford still occupies the Oval Office and costumed vigilantes are outlawed. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Angela Abar (Regina King) is an undercover detective known as Sister Night, working diligently to bring down a white supremacist group known as the 7th Kavalry. Some years earlier, an overnight operation murdered nearly the entire police force, leaving only a few survivors. Among them were Abar and Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). Now, police officers cover their faces to hide their identities, going about their work in secret. This is meant to protect them and their families, but also affords them the security of anonymity and allows many to do things unchecked.
While this is an ensemble cast full of talented performers, Regina King is the clear star and lead. From her earliest days as a teenager on the sitcom “227” to last year’s Academy Award for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” King has been a consistent and needed presence in film and television. And her decades in the business have built to this astounding performance in this incredible role. Episode 1, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” was just the beginning of a season that will see King’s Abar as a bonafide action star who also deftly moves between dignified emotion and wide-eyed curiosity. Angela Abar is sure to inspire many Halloween costumes this year, and not just because her outfit looks cool. It’s because a lot of women are going to want to channel her badass alter-ego, Sister Night.
Equally compelling is Tim Blake Nelson as Looking Glass. Glass has a more mysterious past than Angela and he operates outside the boundaries of due process. The attitude is that terrorists don’t deserve rights and his interrogation methods demonstrate that. Nelson has also had a long career full of mostly supporting roles and it is a treat to see him play such a substantive character. Looking Glass is a man has looked into the face of tragedy and been defined by it. He is left with a moral center that makes sense to him, even if it is a little less clear to others.
Morality is a big theme of the source material and of this series. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons crafted a work that drove home the point that unchecked vigilantes can and will cause more harm than good. And the series, from the mind of Damon Lindelof, continues in that tradition. The police may be trying to stop a group descended from the KKK, but their methods and attitudes are often just as dangerous. Does the badge make it okay? Where are the lines? In this era where the costumed heroes are criminals and the police wear masks, how do you know who to trust or where to turn? These are the questions that make “Watchmen” a brilliant show and ideal for a long-form television series.
Lindelof and his team haven’t adapted or remade Moore’s work. They have taken inspiration from it. Some of Moore’s characters will make appearances or receive a passing mention. Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is alive and kicking, and we’ll spend time with Laurie Blake. Where are Dan and Dr. Manhattan now? Why did the 7th Kavalry take up Rorschach as the symbol of their cause? Those characters exist in this world and we will catch up with them along the way. The events of 1985, from the Comedian’s murder to Ozymandias’ grand plan have ripple effects that still matter in 2019.
What Lindelof and his team have accomplished is stunning in scope, sleek and magnificent in style. Maybe the comic truly was unfilmable. Or maybe Zack Snyder accomplished the impossible with his 2009 film. Regardless of whether you think that was a success or a misfire, the series is a perfect way to pay homage to the source material, without attempting to reinvent something that was only ever intended for the page. Get ready for eight episodes of mystery, drama, violence, and, most of all, a political thriller that holds a mirror up to our world and asks us to take a good, long look at what we’ve created. There may not be costumed vigilantes running around in our 2019, but there are certainly plenty of villains. And, just like in “Watchmen,” sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
“Watchmen” airs on HBO Sunday nights at 9 p.m.
We were provided with the first six episodes for this review.