This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Remember when everyone was like, “What’s going to happen to HBO when Game of Thrones ends?” And, like, “Is TV dead as we know it?”
I mean, I guess it’s understandable to want to stage a funeral for great television while watching that final season of Thrones. (Burn!) But two drama series have aired on the network in the time since King’s Landing fell, each of which I would rank leagues above Thrones on any year-end Best of TV list: Years and Years and the second season of Succession.
The former found a near-miraculous way to be topical about today’s rabies-ridden sociopolitical discourse, while the latter took the mantle when it comes to watercooler buzz and, especially, with media and Twitter obsession. In addition to those two, the second season of Big Little Lies was a major ratings and press boon.
But with Watchmen, there’s not just a third drama series of excellence entering the mix, but one that I think will, if not quite have the same reach as Thrones, fuel a fanbase of people who just will not stop talking about it.
Watchmen premieres Sunday and shares two unmistakable characteristics with that show: It is visually astonishing, with each frame more ambitious, stunning, and remarkable than the one before. You also have no idea what the hell is going on at any given moment. If you liked that about Game of Thrones, you’ll LOVE it about Watchmen.
That a series which poses such a fascinating narrative conundrum would count Damon Lindelof as its creator should come as no surprise; as the man behind Lost and The Leftovers, he’s proven a penchant for a certain kind of dazzling befuddlement that evolves into brilliance. The series is an adaptation inspired by the revered DC Comics 12-part series from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, but which the HBO creative team involved refers to as more of a “remix.”
I have not read the comic series, so I have no idea what that means, but I can say that I didn’t feel like I needed to have read it to enjoy the episodes of the HBO show that I watched. I also saw the notoriously maligned 2009 Zack Snyder film adaptation, but don’t remember anything about it besides its insane sex scene: as Patrick Wilson’s legendary bottom thrusts and a fully-nude Malin Ackerman gyrates, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” plays.
Anyway, what I am getting at is that you don’t need to be familiar with these things to watch the show.
The show itself presents a sort of sci-fi alt-history, set in a contemporary America where Robert Redford is serving the longest presidential term in history. He has signed into law reparations for black Americans. Vietnam is a state. Things are...different. But as a jolting reminder of how not-different things are, or at least have been through history, the series starts with a violent, brutal dramatization of the very real 1921 Tulsa massacre, in which as many as 300 black citizens were killed.
That real history haunts the show’s alt-history, where, in the present day, white supremacists are hunting down police officers. These officers now wear masks to conceal their identities for their own safety, and are working alongside masked vigilantes, like Regina King’s Sister Night, who is a former cop named Angela.
There’s a lot to say and untangle about the ties between white supremacy and institutions like the police force, as well as the very ideas of policing and justice in general, which are coming untethered among escalating racial tensions. What lands and what doesn’t land is subjective in Watchmen, and you can’t shake the feeling that you need to watch the series unfold entirely before ruling one way or the other.
Of course, the journalists and critics (hi!) telling you to watch this because it’s really damn good have had the luxury of seeing six full episodes. I’d go ahead and comfort you by saying if you’re intrigued enough by all of the “huh?” in episode one, you get many answers in episode two—though, my god, not all, not even close. Quote King’s Angela after a particularly baffling, though thrilling, moment: “What the fuck?”
Same, girl. And often. But by the time Jean Smart enters in episode three, you know I was on board, full-stop. She gives one of my favorite performances of the year as a former superhero-turned-FBI agent, a perfect complement to my nightly bingeing of her work as Charlene Frasier on Designing Women—a TV series I have mentioned in this newsletter far more often than I really should.