“Watchmen” begins the way every comic book adaptation does: with a race riot. Not just any race riot, though. “Watchmen” begins with the 1921 Tulsa race riots. This is a riot that destroyed 35 blocks of city in less than a day at the hands of white mobs and private aircraft bombs. The show takes place in this same city, one hundred years later, in an alternate universe where the police wear masks and squids rain from the sky.
This is not a show about superheroes. Masked vigilantes are outlawed in this world, where Nixon defeated Vietnam and abolished term-limits, while actor Robert Redford would become the longest serving president. The first episode follows Angela Abar (Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”), a woman from the now-state of Vietnam. She’s a baker by day and a masked officer by night, known as Sister Night, hooded and dressed in all black. Angela and the Tulsa Police Force are engaged in a war with a white supremacy group clad in Rorschach masks known as the Seventh Kalvary. After one of the Kalvary members shoots up an officer, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson, “Miami Vice”), the chief of police, begins an all-out manhunt to put an end to the Kalvary. The departmental weapons ban is released. Witnesses are tortured — again, this is not a show about superheroes.
The show is not a direct adaptation of the graphic novel, but rather a sort of sequel. The fact that it is a sequel is remarkably important because, contrary to what one might think, “Watchmen” makes very little sense. It is bizarre and strange and unusual. But it is also bold and daring. I can imagine that it might not feel that way if you don’t understand what happened in the comic. In the latter, Rorschach investigates the muder of a former hero, only to find out that other former hero Ozymandias had arranged for his murder. He did this to cover up his plan to unleash a fake, squid-like alien upon New York City, forcing the United States and Soviets into an alliance, thus establishing peace on Earth. Rorschach detailed the conspiracy in his journal, which ends up in the hands of a far-right newspaper after Dr. Manhattan obliterates him.
Yes, “Watchmen” is very strange, both as a comic and a television show. An ending in which a giant squid attacks New York for the sake of stopping World War III is not usually a sign of high art. Yet, it isn’t so much the specifics of “Watchmen,” but the message. As a comic, it was interested in debilitating moral issues. Who has power and who gets to decide what’s right and wrong? As a show, HBO has managed to use the framework that the comic gave it in order to expandon those questions, and to search out other lines of inquiry. Suddenly, “Watchmen” is not a single, unadaptable story, but rather a template for exploring serious questions.
The main question in HBO’s “Watchmen” is undoubtedly race. The presence of reparations for African Americans (here called “Redford-ations” because of their implementation by President Robert Redford), the opening with a race riot and the enemies being white supremacists. The series again challenges the notion that everything is not black-and-white, contrary to the way Rorschach’s inkblot mask might manipulate one into thinking. The Seventh Kalvary wear Rorschach masks as a symbol, carrying out an extrapolated far-right message from Rorschach’s published journal.
“Watchmen” is remarkably complicated. It really isn’t black-and-white. But HBO’s rendition is daring, exciting and audacious. It’s unafraid of difficult questions and the possibility of difficult answers. The series opener is incredible, if confusing. It is explosive and tense. If the rest of the show carries on with the same ferocity, “Watchmen” will likely be one of the most incredible shows of the decade.