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Watchmen on HBO isn't a superhero show. It's a western, and a weird one

Review: The 2019 Watchmen TV series takes the legendary comic in entertainingly odd new directions.

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Who watches these watchmen?

HBO

HBO's Watchmen is a TV show based on a comic. And it also kind of isn't. 

The new nine-episode Watchmen TV show is inspired by the 1986 series from comic legends Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It arrives in a landscape saturated with superheroes, but stretches the definition of superheroics to become something altogether stranger. Rather than make a straight adaptation, Lost and The Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof steers the TV show to be Very Much Its Own Thing -- dense, odd, thrilling and thoughtful, and much closer to Westworld's headspinning sci-fi complexity than the colorful comic book action of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Watchmen is available now on HBO in the US, or Sky Atlantic and Now TV in the UK.

The previous attempt to bring Moore and Gibbon's iconic comic to the screen, Zack Snyder's 2009 movie, was so faithful it basically transcribed the artwork. Snyder's main addition was bone-snapping violence -- and in coming episodes of the TV show, you'll see what appears to be a sly dig at the movie's gleeful gore. But the TV show couldn't be further from the movie: They haven't adapted the comic so much as extrapolated a new chapter in the dense alternate history conceived by Moore and Gibbons. Yet it's more than a new storyline. The comic and Snyder's movie drew from the heritage of comic books, and Lindelof and company widen the frame of reference. This screen adaptation is fittingly infused with myths and legends from the screen, looking to movies and TV rather than comics.

Specifically, it's a western.

Whether they're swooping across Gotham or Metropolis or Spider-Man's New York, comic superheroes tend to be urban -- and Moore and Gibbon's comic was largely located in a debauched and degraded New York City. But the TV show moves the action to Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, and from the silent movie opening we're immediately thrown into western iconography. On quiet country roads and sleepy suburbs, the inspiration for these masked men is less Batman and Superman, more the Lone Ranger and the Ku Klux Klan. This is the frontier, the Wild West: a society on a knife-edge, spiraling into lynchings and shoot-outs as the consensus of society breaks down and the victors are whoever draws first.

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Who masks the maskmen?

HBO

But this isn't just a fantasy of cowboys and Indians. The historical reference that opens the show doesn't come from a made-up alternate history: the black western hero portrayed in the film's opening moments really lived in the Old West, and the horrifying 1921 Tulsa race riot and massacre that follows was also tragically real.

Only when we move to the present day do we find ourselves in a world different from ours. Liberal President Robert Redford is in charge and American Hero Story is on the TV. Reparations have been paid to the survivors of slavery, but "Redfordarations" are this world's "Obamacare," despised by many. In Tulsa, law and order has fractured as both sides wear masks: The comic's twisted narrator, Rorschach, has inspired an army of racists to bear arms, while the cops hide their identities from this well segregated militia.

This is where Watchmen the TV show brushes up against the superhero genre, as Tulsa detectives take on masked identities. Leading the way is Sister Night, played by Regina King. Dressed up in a costume like a nun, Sister Night doesn't follow orders -- holy or otherwise -- as a new wave of violence strikes close to home. Punches are thrown, along with superhero-style toys. She even has her own Batmobile-style car cruising through the night. Generally though, Watchmen echoes the recent Joker movie in delving into the shadows of the superhero genre.

The other lead detective is Looking Glass, winningly played by Tim Blake Nelson. The glossy reflective mask that gives him his name is a twist on the mask worn by the comic's Rorschach, which forced you to see what you want to see in patterns that already exist. This new mask is a mirror, reflecting our gaze back at us.

This warped mirror world offers no simple metaphors to make sense of our own, however. Watchmen is a dense and complex show, and only after we've seen the full season will we be able to parse how the themes and subtexts tie together. It'll be interesting to see how Lindelof resolves provocative storytelling choices like depicting the police as victims of racial violence while white racists are oppressed by abusive authorities.

In fact, making sense of the show as a whole will take a while. It's up there with Westworld in terms of how many dense storylines and character arcs interweave. Every frame is filled with enough details and motifs to fill a whiteboard or a Reddit subforum, although not everyone wants their TV to feel like homework. If you've read the original comic you have a head start, but not much -- it's so divorced from the source material and so full of tangled storylines that some viewers may find it as impenetrable as Superman's skin. The alternative is a fun sweepstake with your friends about who lasts longest at keeping track of the threads instead of just sitting back and letting the weirdness wash over you.

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Who irons the Irons man?

HBO

Fortunately the weirdness is really weird. Even if it won't become clear what's going on until the end or even until you've watched it again, there's tons of striking, intriguing and novel imagery on display. Like FX's delightfully bizarre Legion before it, HBO's Watchmen wholeheartedly embraces the freedom of its comic roots, spiraling into surrealness that piques the interest enough to get you to come back for the next installment. The freak flag really flies during glimpses into the life of a mysterious character played by Jeremy Irons, teasingly parceled out across the episodes. When earthbound investigations meander, these jolts of absurdity and insanity give each episode a real charge.

With so much going on, the show can't always keep the plates spinning at top speed. Sister Night feels like she's meant to be the protagonist, but the show seems to forget about her for occasional stretches, and that makes her investigation seem to be spinning its wheels rather than moving forward.

Still, the sheer scope and ambition of this new version make it a worthy successor to the legendary comic. Even if you're sick of superheroes, Watchmen has plenty to marvel at.

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Originally published Oct. 20.