Commentary: More manipulative than meaningful, ‘Watchmen’ has a ‘Lost’ problem
HBO’s “Watchmen” is among the best-reviewed series of the year, scoring 85 (out of 100) on the review-aggregation site Metacritic and appearing on more than 40 critics’ top 10 lists to date. Not among them are Times TV critics Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd, who’ve been left unmoved by creator Damon Lindelof’s spin on Alan Moore’s beloved graphic novel. Here, Ali and Lloyd discuss their reservations about “Watchmen” — and why they think the series’ praise has been overblown.
HBO’s “Watchmen” examines race, white supremacy and police brutality. Sunday night’s series premiere has creator Damon Lindelof asking, “Should we have done it?”
ALI: I know little to nothing about the comic book that inspired the HBO series. Still, I was excited to see this show because trailers made it look like it was going to explore very real issues — discrimination, the normalizing of white supremacy, women as avengers for justice — inside a fictional universe. It’s based in present-day Tulsa, Okla., where white supremacists have amassed and mobilized. Cop Angela Abar (Regina King) leads the effort to eradicate the terror group. She’s the superhero here, masked and fighting the Seventh Kavalry (think Ku Klux Klan, but in masks rather than hoods). Then there are all the other story arcs rooted in utter fantasy — squid dropping from the sky, mind control, a doomsday clock.
Yet eight episodes into “Watchmen,” I’m still scratching my head, trying to figure out what exactly this series is about. Vigilante justice meets institutionalized racism meets time travel meets a blue god and the end of the world? It evokes brutal truths, like the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, lynching and police brutality. It makes the obvious point that America has a really ugly past, and it’s not really the past because history keeps repeating itself. But then the heavy subject matter is mixed with outlandish subplots, so it feels like it’s dropped in for effect. Overall, it seems irresponsible and exploitative.
LLOYD: I agree that the show, from which the comic’s creator Alan Moore has disassociated himself, is a muddle, which sets us apart from what seems to be the critical consensus that something great and meaningful is going on here. There is still the finish to come, so it’s possible that the show’s many threads will tie up into something like a point. (Not that you need a point in a comic book movie, other than, you know, “Kapow!”) Still, on the big issues, or what the show seems to suggest might be issues without significantly developing them, it frustrates me — even as, at nearly any given moment, I find it enjoyable to watch; it’s a matter of the parts being greater than the sum.
That the show exists largely on an alternative timeline — certain events, like the Tulsa massacre, are historical fact; others, as with an ongoing Robert Redford presidency, might be called historical fun — lets it off the hook to a certain extent, I guess. We’re talking about our America, when it fits, and not our America, when it doesn’t. (I do like the fact that in this world, people get their news from actual print.) The series is built around a a core of vigilante heroes and superheroes, cops who act like vigilantes, and a couple of mad scientists who might as well be called superheroes since they invent impossible things with ease — all of whom seem to be trying to save the world in their cross-purposed way.
But it has nothing consistent to say about vigilantism, or even the ambiguous way we as viewers situationally regard it: good when it’s our guys, bad when it’s theirs. And how are we meant to regard the country as a whole, which is fleetingly suggested to have become a liberal nanny state? It’s the beginning of an idea, but it just seems to be there to give the villains something to grouse about.
In “Watchmen,” Jean Smart adds to a string of acclaimed roles in dark series like “Fargo” and “Legion” as no-nonsense FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake.
ALI: Right, the show wants it both ways — racism is bad, but hey, white supremacists are tired of being stepped on too! Ugh. Now can we talk about the myriad “Lost” problems here? [Lindelof was the co-showrunner on that series, with Carlton Cuse.] I’m referring to all the mysteries, inexplicable phenomena and enigmatic figures they introduce then fail to unpack. “Watchmen’s” version of the polar bear is an elephant. Squid dropping from the sky is “Lost’s” cabin in the woods. What is their purpose? Take Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons): He’s a sadistic genius who creates sycophants in his lab and then tortures them in gruesome ways, but to what end, other than making viewers cringe? There are cars that drop from the sky, a Vietnamese holiday on which folks paints themselves blue in honor of Dr. Manhattan, and the doc is a god who speaks in time-jamming riddles. Are there an extra 20 “Watchmen” episodes we don’t know about? Because there’s no way they can assemble all this space junk into a cohesive narrative by Sunday’s finale. I’m clearly frustrated. You take it from here, Robert.
LLOYD: Lorraine, you steal thoughts from my head. (Are you Dr. Manhattan?) Yes, “Lost” is what I thought of too, though the apparent randomness of a polar bear on a tropical island was much more interesting than when they got around to an explanation. There’s an effective trickery when it comes to coincidence — they’re always spooky on some level — and “Lost” got a lot of mileage from repeating the same essentially meaningless sequences of numbers all over the damn place. (Fans spent an enormous amount of time puzzling the show out, even as, fundamentally, there was no puzzle.) In “Watchmen” it’s clocks and eggs and such, and a narrative that leans heavily on dark secrets and (not always) amazing reveals for its dramatic effects: X is the Y of Z!
It works on some primal level, yet it still feels more manipulative than meaningful to me. “Watchmen” is a lot tighter than “Lost” was, though; the circular systems have been obviously worked through in advance, where “Lost” was a festival of retconning. And some of these gambits are elegantly expressed, as in the barroom conversation where Abar and Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) begin their relationship. (Indeed, the writing in most any given scene is very good.) Both “Watchmen” and “Lost” appeal to me on a sensory level: The production is excellent, the design clever, with an impressive attention to detail and some fun pastiches of old movies and advertisements. And the acting is fine all around, and here and there exceptional.
Which brings me to King, whose grounded performance, along with Jean Smart’s FBI agent, is the best argument for watching the show. She’s the most rounded character “Watchmen” offers — mother, lover, cop, a black woman in history, a pawn of fate — and whenever we’re with her, we’re somewhere real, however batty the action.
HBO’s “Watchmen” resurrects the franchise’s most intriguing character, played here by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
ALI: The show does look fantastic: The historical re-creations, the alternate Tulsa, even Veidt’s peculiar Ozymandias mansion. And I’m right there with you regarding King. She’s the main reason I keep coming back to the show, apart from the fact that watching is part of my job. I also love Looking Glass, a.k.a. Wade Tillman (played by Tim Blake Nelson): the silver mask, the slow drawl and the fact that he’s a human lie-detector test. His back story is one of the better ones here. It explains why he appears to have more in common with the Kavalry than the cops, but appearances are deceiving, especially when coated in Mylar. The Kavalry’s Rorschach masks are also an especially terrifying twist. Still, there are so many plot holes in “Watchmen” that the best aspects of the show are often swallowed up by the overall lack of vision.
LLOYD: Yes, whatever meaning the show might be reaching for just gets undercut by the next bunch of cool business, and the necessity of providing motivation — so much trauma and loss in the young lives of heroes — and those dependable frissons of coincidence. To go back to your original observation, are the racial plotlines the subject of the series, or just a platform to build a “Watchmen"-compatible story on? (There was going to be a “Watchmen” series, whether or not this was the story it told.) It’s a question that comes up for me through most of the show — the Ozymandias-on-Europa scenes, don’t get me started — if I think about it more than a little. Indeed, the less I think about it, the more I like it, and if the show didn’t ask to be taken very seriously, perhaps we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. In any case, I’ll be watching the finale. Who can abandon a mystery in the penultimate chapter?
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