Using the graphic novel as the scaffolding for a dense, brooding HBO series, “Watchmen” grafts enough new threads onto its existing mythology to make “Westworld” look like a 1970s sitcom by comparison.
Seemingly made strictly for die-hard fans, the series itself presents its own kind of Rorschach test: Occasionally frustrating and meandering, it’s never less than interesting, although that appeal might not extend much beyond acolytes of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ dark superhero tale.
Notably, director Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” movie of a decade ago – which was both grisly and visually stunning – turned out to be a significant disappointment box-office-wise, suggesting the limits of the material.
Undaunted, “Lost” and “The Leftovers” producer Damon Lindelof has constructed a narrative around that foundation (without the blessing of Moore, who is notoriously cranky about spinoff efforts) that brings the story into the present day. At the same time, the story liberally flashes back to the past and, just to add another degree of difficulty, frequently changes perspective as new characters – or new versions of old ones – keep joining the party.
Yes, some familiar players turn up eventually, although how and where is too spoiler-y to divulge. Having previewed six episodes, suffice it to say that Lindelof and his collaborators are playing a long game and then some as they peel back layers, in a manner that’s simultaneously intriguing and confounding.
The series also introduces several plot lines that wade hip-deep into issues like white supremacy, racism and policing, hot-button issues that complicate how one processes an alternate reality where Dr. Manhattan won Vietnam for the good ol’ U.S.A., Richard Nixon stayed president well into the 1980s and Robert Redford now holds that office.
The main present-day focus involves a white supremacist group, the 7th Kavalry, which goes around wearing Rorschach masks, an homage to the fallen vigilante from the original story.
The police, meanwhile, shroud their faces (it’s part of something called DOPA, or the Defense of Police Act), including detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who dons a mask and cowl when she secretly leaps into action, flouting laws designed to control such masked vigilantes.
As noted, “Watchmen” operates in a world where superheroes were real, and mankind escaped nuclear annihilation thanks to an elaborate plot that killed millions in order to bring countries together. Those heroes are largely in the rear-view mirror, which makes this much less a comic-book franchise than a gritty drama, albeit one steeped in the history that the graphic novel laid out.
Perhaps because it’s juggling so many ideas, the series feels muddled in its politics, and it’s hard not to yearn for a greater sense of urgency. Those drawbacks don’t entirely undermine “Watchmen’s” pleasures, but they do blunt and distract from them.
Those pleasures include an inordinately good cast, which in addition to newly minted Oscar winner and “Leftovers” alum King include Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson and Don Johnson.
The action doesn’t pull any punches, in keeping with the brutality of the comics. For all that, “Watchmen” appears to revel in its impenetrability. Like “Westworld,” nothing here moves quickly, much less faster than a speeding bullet.
Lindelof has thus built a show for those who all “all in” from the get-go, and there will surely be an avid core – exactly the kind of constituency upon which premium TV relies – for whom every twist, turn and Easter egg becomes their latest obsession.
The uninitiated, however, need not apply. As for those in the middle, who might be curious but not as fully invested, it’s worth hanging around, for now, to see where “Watchmen” is heading, as the show tick, tick, ticks onward.
“Watchmen” premieres Oct. 20 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.