Stream HBO’s Watchmen

Resurgent white supremacy, scrutinized police and a celebrity president: HBO’s Watchmen holds up a fun house mirror to our world just as Alan Moore’s version did three decades ago.

Jeremy Irons loves a proper <i>Watchmen</i> adaptation almost as much as he loves birthday cake.

Jeremy Irons loves a proper Watchmen adaptation almost as much as he loves birthday cake.

After countless false starts and a slavish-yet-tonally-inept Zack Snyder version, HBO’s new original series Watchmen does what every other Alan Moore adaptation before it has failed to do: channel the bold intelligence of its visionary creator.

And the new series, developed by Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof, isn’t just smart. It’s a pipe bomb of world-building ideas that I hope Lindelof and his creative team gets to fully explore, with or without the blessing of the cantankerous Moore, burned so many times by bad Hollywood adaptations that he insists on having his name removed from any future ones. He may want to reconsider that policy—at least this one time.

Unlike Snyder’s 2009 big-budget misfire, Lindelof, who scripted the first episode, actually gets the provocative subtext that made the 12-issue maxi-series by Moore and artist David Gibbons such a genre-eclipsing game changer in 1987.

Picking up the action both before and decades after the original Watchmen, we’re plunged into a world where history has been altered by the existence of costumed vigilantism. This is unlike most comics, where despite having, say, Captain America or Iron Man around, World War II and the Vietnam war still unfolded the same way. Not so in Watchmen (both the comic and the series), where Vietnam is now a U.S. territory, thanks to the tide-turning intervention of Doctor Manhattan, a nuclear accident-turned-demigod who views the world like one might an ant farm and remains in interstellar exile when the show begins. (Side note: The eerie Doctor Manhattan origin sequence is the one part that Snyder’s movie nails. The rest of the film plays like slo-mo-bro porn.) But Lindelof has suggested he doesn’t intend to bring Doctor Manhattan or most of Moore’s other costumed characters into his story. Rather than a straight-forward adaptation, Lindelof appears more interested in fashioning his own ripped-from-the-timeline parable.

He plunges viewers into a horrifying—and largely forgotten—lynching raid that ripped through Tulsa, Okla. in 1929 before jumping to a post-reparations society in which Robert Redford is president and the city’s predominantly black police force in Oklahoma requires approval from headquarters before their firearms can be unlocked. But greater police diversity and restraint does not mean America has overcome its original sin. Watchmen’s original “heroes” left troubling legacies. Ultraviolent crackpot Rorschach has inspired hillbilly militias of disaffected white dudes. And sometimes it rains squiddy things, probably because of the giant alien squid genocide unleashed by Adrian Veidt, the rich playboy genius who thought he could unite the world against mutually assured destruction through a single tragedy. He was wrong.

Speaking of Veidt, we’re told he’s died in a newspaper headline, but nudged to suspend belief during a cutaway to a highland castle, where a man who looks like he could be the aging Ubermensch lives in privileged seclusion with his dutiful servants, and tantalizes Watchmen fans with the name of a play he recently wrote. Its title? “The Clockmaker’s Son.” Could that refer to Doctor Manhattan’s once-human alter ego Jon Osterman, whose father abandoned his watchmaking profession when Albert Einstein discovered that time was relative? And/or could the significance have something to do with the doomsday clock, whose scary Cold War significance may be tick-tocking some three decades later?

The premiere, directed with blood-drops-on-a-badge precision by Nicole Kassell, gobsmacks you with sly Easter eggs and apocryphal visions of the present. I don’t know where Lindelof and his excellent (surviving) cast will go next, but I can’t wait to turn the page.