After roughly a year since its premiere, HBO’s Watchmen remains one of the most enthralling shows in recent TV history. While technically a sequel to Alan Moore’s comic book series of the same name, the show is not afraid to blaze its own path. Producer Damon Lindelof described the show on his Instagram as a remix of Moore’s comic series, and he is exactly right.
When Watchmen was released in 1985, it forever changed the comic book landscape. Just like Moore’s other works, such as his takes on classic characters such as Batman and the Swamp Thing, Watchmen forever steered the medium away from morally pure heroes in spandex. The comic is dark and gritty and the reader will be hard-pressed to find a character to root for. The story and its characters are morally gray and the group of anti-heroes provide a complex narrative for mature audiences.
2019’s Watchmen fails to provide the same difficult dilemmas. The series focuses on racial conflicts in an alternate 2019 Tulsa, Okla., but does so in a one-dimensional way. Moore’s works are beloved because they are endlessly debateable. The show’s villains believe outright that white people should enslave Black people and, in modern America, this is fortunately not a moral conundrum. HBO’s story has clear bad and good guys: the white supremicists and those fighting against them. There is never a doubt that Angela Abar, the show’s main character, is our hero, and the Seventh Cavalry are almost caricatures with how cartoonishly evil they are at times.
Compare this to the climactic question of the original: Is murder, especially on a large scale, justified if it means saving a larger number of people? Readers walk away from the comic feeling like they were punched in the gut; you don’t get that from HBO.
There is no better lens through which to compare the two stories than the character of Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias: the world’s smartest man. In the comic, he serves as the villain as his plot is what all of our heroes are trying to stop. However, he is also one of the few characters in the story to act out of a morally principled reason. The Watchmen team members suit up for adventure, power, fame and revenge — all personal matters.
Ozymandias, on the other hand, wants to end U.S.-USSR nuclear weapons proliferation in a timeline where they stay at Cuban Missile Crisis-level tension. He knows nuclear war and the deaths of billions are likely and saving them is his only goal; the problem is that he believes that killing three million people in order to give the two nations a common enemy is the only solution. This ultimate take on the trolly problem exemplifies the moral quandaries that make Moore’s work so gripping.
In 2019, HBO presents Veidt as a very different character. He spends almost all of his scenes alone, thousands of miles away from anyone he knows. He languishes in the monotony of his life and only focuses on escaping his prison — not exactly a new narrative. The once-pinnacle of human intellect doesn’t have much, if any, character development throughout the whole show — and it’s great. TV Veidt is a wholly different character to his comic counterpart and that’s okay. While he is arguably a much deeper character on the page, his HBO portrayal was no less gripping. The showrunners captured the pointed style of speech that makes one feel as if Veidt is always a step ahead. Even watching him do his chores is embarrassingly entertaining and is just an example of why his storyline always leaves one wanting more. Over the course of all nine episodes, it was seemingly impossible to be bored.
It’s a fair opinion to say that nothing better has come out on TV since Watchmen premiered in 2019. Everything from the dialogue to the score grips the audience at all times. The highlight has to be the acting though. Regina King takes center stage with a Primetime Emmy-winning performance — one of the show’s 11 nominations. Jeremy Irons truly embodies Ozymandias and Yahya Abdul-Maheen II somehow pulls off monologuing for an entire hourlong episode. The biggest downside of watching it live was the weeklong wait in between episodes. Every part of the production is stupendous, but it still falls short of the original.
The name “Watchmen,” while the show’s biggest asset in advertising, was also its greatest weakness. Just as children of celebrities almost never reach their parents’ fame, so too does the show stand eclipsed behind a legendary piece of fiction. Nevertheless, Watchmen is good, enjoyable television. While best enjoyed after reading the 1985 version, the modern take should be on everyone’s watchlist.