HBO's Watchmen TV series: Everything you need to know

The TV series adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic has exploded onto HBO, and it's a complex and thrilling watch.

Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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  • Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Jennifer Bisset
6 min read

Jean Smart as a version of Silk Spectre.


Adapting the infamously complex Watchmen graphic novel hasn't exactly been all smiles. But HBO has stepped up with a TV series sequel of sorts that promises to be true to the original while breaking new ground. The show presents a cast of new characters plus several characters from the graphic novel in an intriguing new take on the superhero genre. (Read: Watchmen en español.)

Let's unpack what we know about HBO's nine-episode Watchmen TV series, which premiered Oct. 20 on HBO and airs every Sunday. Based on reviews, the show looks like it'll be a keeper -- read CNET's review here, which delves into how the show is influenced by history and westerns as well as superhero comics.

Who are the characters?

Angela Abar: Regina King leads the cast as Angela Abar, a former detective of the Tulsa Police Force and mother of three. The police force must wear masks to protect themselves from the vigilantes raiding their homes, but Abar must also wear a metaphorical mask while looking after her children. By night, she takes on the role of Sister Night, a black-clad asskicker with an armory of cool superhero toys and her own Batmobile-style car.

Silk Spectre: Jean Smart, star of Fargo and Legion, takes over the role of Silk Spectre, the yellow-and-black suited hero played by Malin Akerman in Zack Snyder's movie adaptation. Showrunner Damon Lindelof reportedly confirmed the character's superhero identity at the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour. Smart's character had been named as FBI agent Laurie Blake née Juspeczyk -- the surname of the original Spectre, aka Sally Jupiter/Juspeczyk.

Ozymandias: Next on the prestigious cast list, Jeremy Irons takes on the role of "the aging and imperious Lord of a British Manor," who looks a lot like an older Adrian Alexander Veidt, the comic's superhero-turned-villain Ozymandias. In this alternate history, the billionaire genius masterminded world peace in the 1980s, but he killed 3 million people to do it -- something the series will explore.


Jeremy Irons, Regina King and Don Johnson star in HBO's Watchmen.


Also in the cast are:

  • Don Johnson plays Judd Crawford, Tulsa Chief of Police, whose role in the first episode sets up the plot of the series
  • Tim Blake Nelson plays the intriguingly named Detective Looking Glass
  • Louis Gossett Jr. plays Will Reeves, a survivor of the real-life 1921 Tulsa massacre seen in the opening moments of the show
  • Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (recently seen in Black Mirror and Aquaman) plays Cal Abar, husband to King's character
  • Tom Mison plays Mr. Phillips and Sara Vickers plays Ms. Crookshanks, companions to Jeremy Irons
  • Frances Fisher plays Jane Crawford, wife of Judd
  • Hong Chau plays Lady Trieu, a mysterious trillionaire who shows up in later episodes

Andrew Howard, Jacob Ming-Trent, Dylan Schombing and James Wolk also have parts.

Official HBO trailer

For the best look at the new series so far, go no further than the official HBO trailer. There seems to be a female buddy cop duo forming between King and Smart's characters, which we're very down for. And did anyone see that weird tree hologram? The surprises keep on coming.

Comic-Con trailer

Just peeping out of Marvel's massive shadow, HBO made its mark at San Diego Comic-Con this year with a full Watchmen trailer. It offers a deeper look into plot details, including an explanation of why the police of this world wear yellow masks -- to protect their identities from vigilante attacks. One of the most exciting clips is a shot of a blue hand picking up a blue mask. Is the space-traveling Dr. Manhattan ready to set up life back from Mars?

Teaser trailer

Our first look at HBO's eight-episode adaptation revealed there's not just one Rorschach mask-wearing vigilante out there, but a whole underground community: the racist group known as the 7th Kavalry. Their speaker, featured at the very beginning of the trailer, says, "We are no one, we are everyone and we are invisible." The ominous chanting of "ticktock, ticktock" certainly sends a chill.


Lindelof will stick to the original story's bones.


Setting, plot details

The trailers establish a war between an uprising of Rorschach mask-wearing vigilantes, reportedly known as the 7th Kavalry, and the Tulsa Police Force, who also don masks to protect their own identities.

The setting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sets Lindelof's adaptation on a different tone to the New York-set comic, although Dr. Manhattan nips off to Mars. With this story taking place after the events of the book and Zack Snyder's 2009 movie, characters like the Comedian are likely to remain dead in the TV show's timeline. But this doesn't mean Lindelof can't still dip into the graphic novel's cast of characters who haven't been portrayed on screen yet.

Lindelof likened his take to Noah Hawley's Fargo TV series, which became "its own thing" from the Coen brothers' original 1996 film, he told Syfy in April, 2018. "I wouldn't call Noah Hawley's version of Fargo an adaptation because the film exists inside of his world, and so everything that happened in the film Fargo, it does precede the television show Fargo."

In a five-page open letter to fans he shared in 2018, Lindelof, a lifelong fan of the graphic novel, detailed his intentions not to adapt the "sacred ground" but to remix it. He flashed words like "original", "contemporary" and "new faces" but also stressed that he wouldn't "erase what came before."

All the way back in 2009, before Snyder's Watchmen came out, Lindelof described to CBR how the story had influenced his writing: "From the flashbacks to the non-linear storytelling to the deeply flawed heroes, these are all elements that I try to put into everything I write."

Original writer Alan Moore hasn't had anything to do with the show -- he generally shuns adaptations of his work -- but artist Dave Gibbons appears to approve of the series. "I found Damon's approach to be really refreshing and exciting and unexpected," he told Entertainment Weekly in September, 2018. "While it's very reverential and true to the source material (by which I mean the Watchmen graphic novel that Alan and I did), it's not retreading the same ground, it's not a reinterpretation of it. It approaches it in a completely unexpected way."

Release date, soundtrack, pilot

The ninety-minute first episode premiered on Oct. 20 and new episodes will air Sunday on HBO. In the UK you can see the show on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.

For the uninitiated, HBO is a subscription service that offers both cable and streaming with HBO Now so you don't even need a TV. Bonus: You can stream HBO Now for free for 30 days.

Soundtrack fans, note that composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of The Social Network are on board.

Nicole Kassell, a HBO veteran from Westworld and Lindelof's The Leftovers, directs the pilot. Lindelof praised Kassell for her work, posting on Instagram in June, 2018: "Yesterday, she called wrap on the pilot of Watchmen... and let there be no doubt -- she WAS the pilot, navigating our owlship flawlessly from takeoff to landing."

Development hell

Like all good superheroes, Watchmen's history hasn't been all smiles. Zack Snyder's 2009 film adaptation came off the back of two decades of development hell. Twelve Monkeys' director Terry Gilliam flirted with the project before deeming the comic (gathered into a graphic novel in 1987) "unfilmable." Others like Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne series) entertained taking it on, before Snyder stepped up in 2005.

His final cut spanned 2 hours and 43 minutes, with an "Ultimate Cut" at 3 hours and 35 minutes. With an R-rating, six main characters and a world set in a complicated alternative timeline, response was split. But at the very least Snyder can claim to have given it a red-hot shot.

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This story was originally published Oct. 19, 2018 and is updated as news comes out.