The thing about Watchmen is that it probably shouldn’t work at all, let alone work this well. It is so many things and all of them are happening so quickly. It’s a show based on a comic but it’s barely tied to the comic and is set decades after the comic ended. It plays fast and loose with a beloved text. It takes on the history of race in America as directly as any show on television and also featured an on-screen fart that lasted so long it required two separate captions, “farting loudly” and “fart squeaks.” It hops around through time with very little interest in telling you exactly where or when it is. Jeremy Irons is out in a picturesque space prison fishing babies out of a lake and growing them into servants, some of whom he roasts in a chamber as part of a stage play he puts on for himself and some of whom he launches into the cosmos with a giant catapult. That’s a lot. It’s just objectively a lot for a show that has only been on for eight episodes so far.
It’s also not everything. Not even close. There’s also a mysterious science lady who is building a big clock and just had a drugged-up Regina King strapped to an IV that was hooked up to an elephant hidden inside a locked room. There’s what can’t be described as anything less than a beautiful love story between an orphaned cop and a glowing blue god who tricked the world into thinking he lives on Mars. A mysterious man in a wheelchair was later discovered to be a) the grandfather of Regina King’s character; b) the secret identity of Hooded Justice, a legendary masked vigilante who everyone assumed was white; c) a person who convinced the town’s police chief to hang himself using a blinking mind control flashlight. At one point, a man was fleeing King’s character and squirted his body down in some sort of lubricant at a full sprint and then slid feet-first into a sewer grate. Everyone who watches the show started calling him Lube Man and we haven’t seen him for one single second since that happened.
Read back through those two paragraphs once or twice. Let all of it sink in. And then ask yourself how, exactly, a show that is doing that many things at once is also managing to be one of the best shows of the year. It is that, to be clear. Watchmen is one of the best shows of 2019. It is so good. It is almost unreasonably good, given the circumstances. None of it makes any sense.
If you insist on trying to make sense of it all, though, you could start with the name Damon Lindelof. The public at large is probably most familiar with Lindelof from his time running Lost, another show that spun a lot of plates and threw a lot of stuff against the wall (“throwing spinning plates against the wall” sums it up pretty well, actually) to varying degrees of success. Bring up the finale of that show at your next fancy cocktail party and watch the arguments start. I’ve done this once or twice and I didn’t even watch Lost. Sometimes it’s fun to set fires.
I’ll tell what I did watch, though: The Leftovers, Lindelof’s follow-up to Lost, a show about two percent of the world’s population vanishing out of nowhere one day and everyone else trying to come to grips with it. Like Watchmen, this show was also very good and had a whole lot going on. It was maybe the deepest examination of loss I’ve ever seen on television and also a show where a character got a Wu-Tang tattoo and then jumped on a trampoline for a while. It was a show that gave viewers an unflinching look at the grief of a mother who lost her entirely family in a heartbreaking statistical anomaly and also set an entire episode on a cruise boat filled with a lion-obsessed sex cult bound for Australia. It was profound and profoundly weird and surprisingly funny throughout. If you’re looking for a good place to start explaining why Watchmen works, you could do worse than “Well, because The Leftovers worked, too.”
Watchmen is a much bigger swing, though. This isn’t a niche prestige series with a tiny but passionate audience. This is a huge deal piece of intellectual property, one its creator rather famously poo-poos adaptions of. There are more moving parts before you go about adding extra moving parts. The original comics featured a nude blue human god ending the Vietnam War and making Nixon a national hero. A huge squid landed on Manhattan and killed three million people and that was a diversion to end the Cold War. There was already plenty of stuff going on without the time jumps and lube men and deep dives into historically underreported acts of racial violence. The whole thing is ambitious bordering on audacious and it’s somehow become the most compelling and watchable and aggressively human show on television right now.
Think about that degree of difficulty. Think about some of the episodes the show has already pulled off. The look into the history of Hooded Justice was a flashback episode that barely featured any of the topline-name cast, was mostly in black-and-white, and asked the audience to deal with that just a handful of hours into the show’s run. The Dr. Manhattan episode was basically a one-hour tragic love story. The fact that the show can take these extended diversions and still advance the main story the way it has — little morsel here, little dusting here, revelations developing naturally that pay off what seemed like throwaway bits from earlier episodes — is almost showing off. It makes for a wild viewing experience. Anything could happen at any point. The other week one of the masked Tulsa cops was on a mini-stakeout eating Cheetos with a fork…
… and, while my initial instinct is to assume that this is just them having a little fun (“fart squeaks”), I’m also left wondering if and how that could get spun back into the story in a way that provides another crazy revelation. The entire finale could hinge on it or it could just never get mentioned again. There’s something kind of thrilling about that. The show has its hooks in me very deep right now.
In a way, maybe that’s the most surprising part of this whole Watchmen deal, the fact that someone like me — a person who has not read the comics and has very recently described himself as “a bit superheroed-out” and more or less refused to do anything deeper than a five-minute Wikipedia scan before diving into the premiere — is now this invested in the show. I have no idea what to expect in the season one finale and I absolutely love it. There are very few true surprises on television right now. It’s been a blast to watch a show that is filled with them.
Will Watchmen be able to keep this momentum going? I honestly do not know. What I do know is that the show has already blown past my expectations and any reasonable guidelines for how well it should work and that it would be very silly for me to sit here and tell you that I expect them to fail now. It’s really a remarkable development. Long live Lube Man.