Premiere of HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ revitalizes iconic comic in chaos of 2019

Illustration of Watchmen character
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There are some things you wouldn’t think would go together: french fries and milkshakes, sweaters and 100-degree heat, and “Oklahoma!” and “Watchmen.” In the premiere of the HBO series “Watchmen,” based off of the culturally iconic graphic novel, this unlikely pair comes to gritty fruition.

According to HBO, the Damon Lindelof-created series would exist within the same world as Alan Moore’s sacred comic but is intended to be narratively individual. Taking place more than 30 years after the events of the comic played out, “Watchmen” as a TV show tackles its own repository of social issues and story obstacles set to the familiar background of dystopian disillusionment. And by setting the stage for what will be such a politically rife series within its premiere, “Watchmen” makes space for an evolved, breathing look at the world that Moore established decades ago. 

As “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” begins, the curtain rises on a young boy and his parents while they flee from the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. In bright, yet desaturated color, the audience listens to the scraping metal of the tension-building score, as the boy watches vicious and rampant destruction lay waste to his life and is forced to walk off on his own with his back to the flames of his city. 

There’s an urgency to this flashback, a gnawingly but subtle pressure on the audience to look right at the screen and not look away. The stark and fast-paced cuts from confined, dark spaces to their violently open counterparts, as well as from bright white day to the opulent blue night, keep the eye captivated, as the unfolding scenes entangle the mind with the notion that this show will be largely about race — and not quiet about it. 

This is continued when, only minutes later, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) is seen watching an all-Black performance of “Oklahoma!” in the modern day. What the traditional musical, a production empowered by its ignoring of racial issues and unbridled satisfaction with white frontier life, does not say about race and civic disrupt is what “Watchmen” concerns itself with the most in this episode. The choice to include this local theater company’s production of the show as a staple motif in the premiere highlights a trend of reclamation and subversion that can be expected from “Watchmen” itself. 

With this underlining the unfolding premiere, Lindelof opens the door for a compelling and always twisting conversation about who the good, the bad and the vigilante are in this world. In this first episode, the dynamic between focal character Angela Abar (Regina King), otherwise known as vigilante Sister Night, and the Tulsa police is coded as positive. 

Abar, Judd and the other heroes introduced to us are bonded by their common enemy, the Seventh Calvary, a group of Rorschach mask-wearing members who serve as the modern representation of the Ku Klux Klan displayed in the opening. And while this promotion of Judd as a friend to minority figures can be seen as an ignorant insinuation, it doesn’t take long for “Watchmen” to successfully and consciously undermine its own positive depiction of his and the police’s authority. 

Cloaked in glistening cinematography, tonally considerate aesthetics and supernatural squid rain, the premiere of “Watchmen” bites off a lot but chews it with ease. Save for a few untied strings, this is a first episode that carefully constructs a world that will soon be thrown into disarray while never being too on the nose. And with such an exquisite jumping off point, audiences likely cannot wait to see what the next horror lurking in the shadows of this new series will be.

Maisy Menzies covers television. Contact her at [email protected].