HBO's WATCHMEN Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal watches the watchmen.

In the late 1980s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons dropped a bombshell on the comic world with Watchmen. Set in an alternative 1985 in a world where 'costumed adventures' are the norm and nuclear war loomed, it was, in the words of the BBC's Nicholas Barber, "the moment comics grew up." It's since spawned Zach Snyder's too faithful for its own good film adaptation, and now an HBO limited series from writer Damon Lindelof. Set 34 years after the comic, the series acts as one part sequel and one part 21st-century remix of the original.

And this is most assuredly a sequel to the Moore-Gibbons comic, not the Snyder film. If you weren't a fan of the movie (and the change made to the ending after being faithful to the comic), there's no need to fret. Moments such as a scene in episode one and the epic effects shot early in part five make clear in whose path we're treading. All of which should make fans of the original very happy, indeed. Though that isn't to say that this series is covering the same old territory, of course.

In a piece over on The Mary Sue last autumn, Jessica Mason explored the "fanfic" element of HBO's Watchmen. And, after seeing it, I'm forced to conclude that she very much has a point. The series does focus on new characters plus some returning ones from the comic. We meet the children of some of the characters, and a couple who were only a reference in the original comic. All of which happens while telling a story that is, on its most fundamental level, a sequel to the comic. Is that a bad thing?

Not in the slightest, as Mason concluded in her piece. For all that this is a sequel, Lindelof and his writers are very much charting a course all their own. This Watchmen takes place, not in urban squalor, but in the American heartland in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's a story about legacy in which almost everyone we meet is dealing with their own in some size, shape, or form. The setting is perfect for exploring that theme as the series opens with a visceral recreation of the city's devastating (and to large extent hushed up) 1921 race riot. As the comic dealt with the Reagan era, the series deals with things very much in the here and now. Be it a resurgent far-right or police brutality. Or our perception of the past versus its realities and the dangers of Nostalgia (literally in the case of that one). It's this forging of a new path that makes HBO's Watchmen as compelling and fascinating as it is.

Though it doesn't hurt that it is superbly brought to life as well. The cast alone makes it worth checking out. There's the notional heroes, those police officers who wear masks, such as Regina King's Angela Abar and Tim Blake Nelson's Wade Tillman, flawed but compelling 'costumed adventurers.' As returning characters from the comic are Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons, both offering strong performances exploring who those people became in the three decades since we last saw them.

Louis Gossett Jr. and Hong Chau play a pair of characters whose origins and actions add to the depth of the piece, plus, especially in the case of Chau, offer an unsettling air. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portrays Angela's husband Cal and Don Johnson is Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford, both play men with central roles in Angela's life in very different ways. Even smaller parts are well cast from James Wolk's Senator, Frances Fisher as Crawford's wife, and Jovan Adepo as the younger version of Gossett's character who gets an extraordinary hour of television all to himself. It's a cast to die for and one which populates the nine episodes to superb effect.

HBO's Watchmen is just as strong as a production. Across nine episodes, five cinematographers, and six directors, the show retains the feeling of it being all of one piece (with the notable exception of episode six which is deliberately something very different, indeed) giving it a visual, as well as a narrative, gel that suits it well. The work of the production design and costume departments goes a long way to sell this alternative world. It's just different enough to our world while also taking cues from the original comic. The effects work, both practical and CGI, help with that as well, especially for moments such as the aforementioned shot early in episode five and heading into the finale. Add on a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (along with select choices of source music) and you have a slick, dare I say cinematic, production.

HBO's Watchmen stands as a triumph. As a sequel, it's done with much affection and understanding for its source material. In fact, it is a better screen version of Watchmen than the film version, in large part because it not only has more space to tell its story but also because it uses the original to tell its own story. In terms of production, it brings a strong cast and cinematic production values together, creating a compelling work in the process. In short, it's everything that makes good TV good TV.

"Who watches the Watchmen?" Why, you should be.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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