But “Watchmen,” billed as a “remix” of the source material, is full of surprises — the first being that Lindelof, in collaboration with excellent co-writers, has broken his own spell and discovered that momentum and meaning can go hand in hand. Rather than hoard its biggest secrets in teasing reserve, “Watchmen” comes across like a smart, swift kick to the gut.
And as far as all that comic-book/superhero/antihero business goes, just forget it. I promise that even the most genre-averse among us can absorb “Watchmen” (which premieres Sunday) without feeling like we forgot to study for the test. At the same time, fans of the original can relish “Watchmen’s” sublime handling of the mythology, spirit and complex tone of the material. It’s strewn with little gifts made special for them.
Of the six episodes made available for this review (there are nine in all), the first hour may be the only hurdle for viewers, as we’re fully immersed in a warped America with plenty of WTFs, including stray references to the fact that Robert Redford has been president for decades — after Richard Nixon served multiple successful terms and Vietnam gained statehood.
The show opens with a horrific flashback to the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, a racist attack on the thriving African American community of Greenwood that left hundreds dead and injured — the details of which were successfully scrubbed from history for decades.
“Watchmen” uses the real-life massacre as a catalyst for the alternate history that follows. In the show’s present-day Tulsa, police officers don yellow masks that mostly obscure their faces, for their protection, particularly against an uprising of white supremacists called the Seventh Kavalry.
Technological advancements abound in this version of 2019: flying squad cars, subservient clones, special phone booths for making calls to Mars, brief storms of interdimensional phenomena and a pharmaceutical drug called Nostalgia that mentally replays one’s life experiences. They have everything, with one notable exception: There appears to be no Internet in “Watchmen’s” world.
Tulsa’s black community has seemingly thrived in a national effort to correct racial discrimination. This includes financial reparations, which are derisively referred to as “Redfordations” by the local racists, most of whom live in a trailer park ghetto on the edge of town called Nixonville. A cultural heritage center exists where Greenwood once stood; inside, a hologram version of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates Jr. (as himself) stands by to test visitors’ DNA connections to the race riot’s victims.
Regina King stars as Angela Abar, a wife and mother of three who is about to open her own bakery. That’s her cover, anyhow. Angela’s real job is as a rogue detective, part of an elite squad overseen by police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). In her hooded black cloak and mask, Angela does her most effective work as Sister Night, alongside such colleagues as Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) and Red Scare (Andrew Howard).
They are regarded less as superheroes than as a controversial approach to law enforcement. The coolest thing about “Watchmen” is the way it upends one’s personal understanding of the line between heroism and vigilantism, well beyond a Batman-style paradigm. The idea and meaning behind wearing a mask is constantly in play, connoting both good and evil. As Angela moves through this fraught territory between identity and morality, King gives a performance that is both glorious and vulnerable. By now, we shouldn’t expect anything less from the Emmy and Oscar winner. It is settled science that she can do no wrong.
While the TV addicts in “Watchmen’s” America are glued to an event miniseries about complicated superheroes of the recent past (a deft, show-within-a-show device to acquaint us with some “Watchmen” lore), there’s the constant unease of the hooded history and malicious presence of the Ku Klux Klan.
An unspeakable crime occurs early on, requiring the arrival of FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake, played by Jean Smart, who savors every brilliant line she’s given. Even though “Watchmen” is rife with acts of gaslighting and conspiracy, Laurie’s presence has a clarifying effect. Less clear, at first, is the purpose of the centenarian in a wheelchair played by Louis Gossett Jr., a link between Tulsa’s bloody past and tenuous present.
By now, it sounds like I’m describing a fever dream instead of another prestige cable drama, but that’s what so delicious about it. (And I never even got around to discussing Jeremy Irons’s bizarre character and his futile but fascinating plight.) All I can say is I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the show; the last time I felt so rapturously overpowered was with David Lynch’s masterful 2017 sequel to “Twin Peaks” for Showtime. It’s a rare and marvelous moment, to be so challenged — yet dazzled — by what one is seeing.
And not to play favorites among networks (which I strenuously avoid), but we are in the early days of a vicious streaming-TV war, which will gobble up whatever’s left of our leisure time and home-entertainment dollars. Apple TV+ and Disney+ will be here in a few weeks with extra content to consume. We have Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu — and more on the way, including an expanded streaming service from HBO. Some tough choices will need to be made.
“Watchmen” is a grand reminder, therefore, that HBO is an essential part of whatever configuration you call television. The show is made with the kind of precision and thought that HBO’s competitors (especially Netflix) only occasionally achieve, and it’s all the indication anyone needs that, yes, there is life after “Game of Thrones.”
(Correction: An earlier online version of this review incorrectly said that Robert Redford appears as himself in a later episode of “Watchmen.” Redford is not in the cast. The review has been updated.)
Watchmen (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.