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‘Watchmen’ made history from the start. The Emmys are no different

Regina King in “Watchmen.”
(Mark Hill / HBO)

A prosperous Black community is savaged by an angry white mob, including the Ku Klux Klan. Terrorized men and women are running, trying to escape the gunfire and explosions. Abandoned children cry for their parents while a Black man is dragged through the street by a car. Mayhem is everywhere.

These disturbing scenes re-creating the Tulsa, Okla., race massacre of 1921 formed the unexpectedly brutal opening for HBO’s “Watchmen,” the reboot of a celebrated graphic novel franchise about a ragged group of costumed crime-fighters. The first episode would unveil another striking image: Sister Night, a masked African American woman and the protagonist waging war against evildoers.

“Watchmen” turned traditional comic-book tropes as well as dramatic TV fare on its head when it premiered last year, injecting hot-button issues such as police brutality against Black people, white supremacy and political corruption into its alternate-universe storyline. The series was the first superhero drama on TV to star a Black woman.

And now it has made Emmy history, becoming the most nominated show in this year’s race.

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“Watchmen” scored 26 Emmy nominations Tuesday — the most of any show this year and more than any other limited series in the category since the current rules were established in 2015. (The classic miniseries “Roots” earned a record-setting 37 nominations in 1977.)

The show, which attracted both critical acclaim and a massive viewership with its bizarre twists and unconventional story, joined the upper echelon of TV series to earn the most nominations in a single year, including HBO’s epic “Game of Thrones,” which earned 32 nominations in 2019; “NYPD Blue,” which notched 26 in 1994; and FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which received 22 in 2016. “Watchmen” outpaced this year’s second-most nominated series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” by six nominations.

Among the marquee nods for the series were lead actress (Regina King) and actor (Jeremy Irons). The show also received three of the six supporting actor nominations (Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jovan Adepo) and three of the six directing slots. Jean Smart added to the haul with her supporting actress nod.

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The recognition for the series guarantees that the charged issues addressed by “Watchmen” will be center stage at this year’s likely-to-be-virtual Emmy Awards, a ceremony that has often been dominated by major star wattage and discussions about red-carpet glamour. Even the costumes on “Watchmen” resonate with today’s headlines: Many of the show’s characters, good and bad, wear masks.

Damon Lindelof, the creator of “Watchmen,” acknowledged that the attention surrounding the series will likely have an impact on the usually frothy atmosphere, a change he says will be welcome.

Analysis of the 2020 Emmy nominations reveals large gains over previous years for Black artists, while Latino, Asian representation were disappointingly flat.

“What is even a ceremony given the times we’re living in now?” he said. “The idea of stripping away the pomp and circumstance and getting to talk about the work is good.” He pointed to other major nominees, including “Ramy,” about a Muslim American family, and “Unbelievable,” a police drama about an investigation into a series of rapes in Colorado and Washington state.

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Said Lindelof, “The content of those shows is talking about the world we’re living in in a very direct way, and we have an opportunity. These times call for a change. I have no idea what the show will be, but I do hope it’s reflective of the moment that we’re in.”

Lindelof has said he was determined to merge the fantastic universe of “Watchmen,” with its flying ships and raining squid, with what he called “the camouflaged history of America.” The series was instrumental in putting a spotlight on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, a relatively little-known chapter of America’s past. He learned about the event through the writing of African American author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who frequently writes about Black identity and white supremacy.

“I consider myself a student of U.S. history, and I thought, ‘How did this slip through the cracks?” Lindelof said in an interview with The Times shortly before the premiere of “Watchmen.” “I felt incredible shame and guilt. I could have taken that shame and internalized it. Instead, I said, ‘I’m going to put that in ‘Watchmen.’”

The spotlight that the show shined on Tulsa’s painful history brought new attention to this year’s 99th commemoration of the event on May 31. President Trump’s controversial campaign rally in Tulsa, which came the day after Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the end of slavery in the United States, further highlighted the subject of “Watchmen’s” daring opening sequence.

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Regina King, Octavia Spencer and Kerry Washington outnumber their non-Black counterparts in the Emmys race for lead actress in a limited series or movie.

The drama also shook up the “Watchmen” franchise by putting a Black heroine in the center of the action. Alan Moore’s original graphic novel and the 2009 movie did not have any characters of color, with the exception of the genetically transformed Dr. Manhattan, who was blue.

Although he was clear in his vision, Lindelof, who co-created “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” had concerns about carrying it out. “This was an incredibly difficult story to tell but I was not necessarily the one to tell it,” he said. “I struggled with that all the way through.”

He assembled a diverse writers room. Of the 12 writers, four were white men, while the remainder were women and/or people of color.

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“The only reason ‘Watchmen’ worked was because other people stepped forward and said, ‘I’ve got this,’” he said. “This was a difficult and humbling experience, but also the most worthwhile of any TV show or movie I’ve worked on.”

But even with all the accolades and Emmy recognition, Lindelof has not changed his mind on a decision that has baffled many a “Watchmen” fan — not moving forward with a second season. The first season ended with a cliffhanger.

“This makes me feel more like it was the right decision,” Lindelof said. “I’ve always felt that ‘Watchmen’ was not ever mine. It preceded me. It inspired me 30 years ago and I got to take a spin in someone else’s car. But the best way to acknowledge that something wasn’t yours to begin with is to pass it on. I am so much more excited to see someone else’s take on ‘Watchmen’ than to try and do it again myself. I am very comfortable with that choice.”

Emmy nominees Cate Blanchett, for “Mrs. America,” and Regina King, for “Watchmen,” will face off in a field crowded with worthy performances.

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