Review: 'Watchmen'

Everybody has secrets in HBO's engaging elaboration on the cult graphic novel
TICK... TICK... TICK...: Regina King, left, plays Sister Knight, a masked detective, in HBO's 'Watchmen.'

In HBO's latest prestige action drama, we find what is perhaps the Age of Streaming's most drastic departure from source material. Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindlelof (Lost) defies the boy-lit stereotypes by casting mature women—Regina King and Jean Smart—as the series' most important figures.

It helps to know the original anyway. Both the 1986 graphic novel and the 2009 film it inspired revolve around a group of forcibly retired masked heroes who learn that one of their number was thrown out a high window. A Krishna-blue atomic superman known as Dr. Manhattan (as in "the Manhattan Project") is key to the investigation. His presence assured American supremacy in the world and helped Richard Nixon ease into his fourth term. But he's slowly becoming a deity, uninterested in human affairs. He vanishes, and nuclear war with the USSR looms.

The self-appointed investigator is an evil-smelling vigilante known as Rorschach, on account of his Rorschach Test-patterned mask. Among his suspects is supergenius industrialist Adrian Veidt—aka Ozymandias, an ancient-world themed superhero—who is scheming a drastic act before the missiles fire. He plans to sever the Gordian knot tying the hands of the superpowers.

This was no mere superhero parody by authors Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore (who has taken his name off of the HBO series). The original work was nothing less than speculative fiction about how our national love of masked vigilante lore parallels the shadowy, extra-legal activities the American establishment engaged in during the Cold War and beyond.

There are fleeting references to the graphic novel in the new show. For example, the Bansky-ish silhouette of two vaporized lovers, burnt as if by an H-bomb flash, is glimpsed in an alley. And then there is the symbol of the watch.

In Watchmen, it clicked ever closer to midnight in honor of the Journal of Atomic Scientists' clock. (It's currently set at two minutes to midnight—sleep tight!) The ticking watch parallels the Deist idea of God as a watchmaker who set everything in motion and then vanished.

Set 30 years after the events of the original, HBO's Watchmen unfolds in Tulsa, OK. King—a formidable, yet sensitive actor, seen in the terrific Support The Girls—stars as Angela. She is a former cop who survived the "White Night" massacre, wherein a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry murdered dozens of police officers on Christmas Eve. In response, president Robert Redford, now in his sixth term, grabbed all the guns, leaving "bitter clingers" to seethe in their trailer parks.

The Kavalry and its supporters are most infuriated by a policy derisively referred to as "Redfordations." Seeking to right the atrocity of the Tulsa race riots of 1921—a true-to-life American kristallnacht, in which the Ku Klux Klan and their supporters destroyed Tulsa's affluent black district of Greenwood—the Redford administration has initiated a program of reparations to descendents of the massacre's victims. Predictably, the gesture has outraged the Kavalry's Caucasian dignity.

"The Bleach," as the Kavalry are called, appear to have scored a coup: the lynching of a top Tulsa cop. But the confessed suspect is a cryptic black centenarian (a very funny Lou Gossett, Jr.), wheelchair-bound and physically incapable of perpetrating the crime. Washington sends in a vinegary FBI investigator (Jean Smart), a lady of certain years who decades ago wore the abbreviated costume of Silk Spectre.

Strange interludes have something to do with the fate of the vanished Veidt. In an English castle, some nudist eccentric writer (Jeremy Irons) is celebrating (daily) a mysterious anniversary, and performing savage experiments on human drones. Is he the missing Veidt or just some madman who thinks he is?

An occasional comic book fight scene holds the show together. King is a handsome sight as the leather nun Sister Night, with an airbrushed-on black mask like Pru in Blade Runner. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's hackles-raising soundtrack thickens the dystopia.

By the way, it sometimes rains alien calamari. This may account for the fishy smell of the characters' stories; clearly everyone has a secret identity in this tantalizing opus. Amid the swirling capes, Watchmen is a puzzle with a paranoid contemporary side. These days, political extremists make dark threats of Civil War II; on the show, as in real life, the masks are coming off.

Sundays, HBO

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