By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – October 20, 2019)
EPISODE 1: IT’S SUMMER AND WE’RE RUNNING OUT OF ICE (Lindelof/Kassell)
In this day and age in pop culture and escapist entertainment, the Head and Shoulders ad campaign taken from a popular saying always springs to mind. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and if your show flops at the start, often the rope isn’t particularly long as it relates to your longevity in not just a crowded space, but a slam-packed space, particularly in television.
Attention spans have shortened and even with Francis Ford Coppola going full on pretentious “artist” this weekend attacking the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “despicable” for not enlightening its audience, being useless in teaching, the end game of non-documentaries is to be ENTERTAINING. Go back to Vinyl, which had an all-star director and a solid cast, but where the pilot failed and it deteriorated from there. Even on HBO, where the leash is presumably longer because of the quality trumping quantity and the ratings numbers not being as important, you still have to stand out or you’ll be a one-season proposition,.
Enter Watchmen, which for Damon Lindelof, represents his biggest and most audacious swing yet. Consider the ground that covers, as he was the co-creator of Lost, which was a ridiculously complex show that would never satisfy everyone. He also adapted Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers into one of the great shows of the century, and one of the top ten shows of my lifetime. But here, he’s taking characters created by the great Dave Gibbons and arguably the most famous graphic novel of all-time and he’s both using that world and iterating upon it.
That takes balls folks, especially after Zack Snyder’s major motion picture adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic was widely regarded as an atrocity. Full disclosure, I didn’t hate it. I’m an unabashed fan of the source material and certainly the movie wasn’t a “rewatch” even though I bought it when it released and saw it multiple times in the theater. I haven’t gone back to it. Probably a smart play.
Heck, even Alan Moore nearly went nuts trying to get through it, arguing with DC and other executives about various aspects of his masterpiece. This is a complicated, layered story that I still am unsure I fully grasp, which means I can’t wait to spend much of this week re-reading it as I work through the rest of the episodes.
Here’s how these reviews are going to go. HBO provided critics with the first six episodes of the inaugural nine episode season, and I am going to stop after each one and write my review, schedule it right here at the Big 6 Blog, and NOT go back and change anything I write. I will be wrong. I will posit theories that will turn out to be incorrect. But that’s what you’re expecting to read. What I learn along the way will not have a chance to filter into my coverage until you see it.
Also, I will refrain at least for now from mentioning the comics and what happened in the original story. While it’s clear from the first episode that Lindelof wants you to jump into his story and not be too married to everything in the universe just yet, I expect many to have never read the story and never seen the movie. I won’t be alienating you and instead will be inviting you to take the journey with me here. And, this is reviewing and analyzing Damon Lindelof’s version, not speaking of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, whose work is timeless and brilliant.
No other graphic novel was mentioned at the turn of the century as one of the top 100 English-language novels since 1923 by Time Magazine. At least I don’t think so. But…
The history is rich, and as we live in a polarized, shades of grey society where the heroes can easily become the villains and vice versa, depending upon one’s perspective, it’s oddly appropriate. I anticipate it will be controversial and political opportunists will seize on it from all directions, but lets talk about that first episode, shall we?
The first 12 minutes of Watchmen are as intense and riveting as any I can remember to open a series. This thing gave you no room to breathe, with a quick version of “Bass Reeves: The Black Marshal of Oklahoma” playing in 1921 Tulsa as a mother and her son watch the silent film. What jumped out not about this open, which was striking in its originality and visual approach, was the idea of silence. One thing throughout the pilot we noticed was that the quietest moments were the most unsettling, which is often how it actually works in life.
But this was intensity at its most precise, even though if there’s one critique I would lodge against the opener, it would be that for a new audience, and even at times for fans of the material, it’s easy to get lost and not exactly know what’s going on. But the difference in this kind of confusion and the “bad” kind is that even if you don’t know what’s happening in specifics, you can sense immediately that something big is going down and that you want to see what’s next, where it’s going, and especially what Regina King is about to do next.
Let me suggest one thing I think Regina King might do next, although there’s so much depth in the talent across the acting landscape on television that I can’t predict she WILL do it. Her work and the draw of the character scream “award.” This isn’t a show that Emmy is likely to love, unfortunately, because, well, generally speaking, Emmy sucks eggs. The Leftovers was criminally overlooked, despite Carrie Coon delivering THE performance of the decade as Nora Durst, not to mention how exceptional she was in Fargo‘s third season for FX. But King is phenomena. Her career has been stellar, which I didn’t necessarily see coming after her character irked the crap out of me on 24.
But she is outstanding in everything, from Southland to American Crime to If Beale Street Could Talk and certainly to Watchmen, where her “Sister Night”/Angela Abar is the lead. She’s ready for the job. That character is 700 kinds of compelling and we barely know her yet. Her name isn’t even mentioned outside of a nickname/moniker flippantly and then you actually hear it late in the episode. Her backstory is likely to be a little more complex down the road, but for now, the enigma factor in some of what she does for a living is a benefit to the series, and it reflects the superhero in plain sight idea. Also, she was born just outside of Saigon a few years before Vietnam “became a state.” Intriguing? Yes. Definitely.
So what did we see in the opener? We saw that Lindelof is going to use the division of our time to frame the outer structure of the narrative, although my thinking is the Seventh Cavalry is going to be far more than just a white nationalist group. The motives will grow and change, and most likely some will bastardize the original intent. No group’s mantra is as simple as it appears. If Watchmen were just about a race and diversity war, that would be hugely disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with using it or including it, even if it’s only going to inflame the issue, but there needs to be something deeper, mainly because there’s nothing new here to mine. That said, the video that played laying out the group’s intentions was important. Here’s what the ringleader said if you didn’t hear it all:
Cop carcass on the highway last night. Soon the accumulated black filth will be hosed away and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters overflowing with liberal tears. Soon all the whores and race traitors will shout save us… and we will whisper no. We are the seventh cavalry. We are no one. We are everyone. We are invisible. And we will never compromise. Do not stand between us and our mission or there will be more dead cops. There are so many deserving of retribution and there is so little time. And that time is near. Tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock….
The traffic stop that turned into cold blooded attempted murder was shot – no pun intended – and paced so beautifully… an odd descriptor, but it was a work of art that showed us what the fictional 2019 has become (maybe a commentary to some degree on what the actual 2019 is). Charlie Sutton… thought for sure he was dead, but we think he’s still alive, just barely. The question is did he wake up or was that call all bogus to lure Judd out to a kill zone ambush.
Totally changing subjects, If the squid downpour left you puzzled, don’t worry about it. It makes sense if you know the backstory, but without question, that will be explained again in coming weeks, as will Jeremy Irons’ character and why we saw a newspaper headline describing the death of someone named “Veidt.” All of this is graphic novel related, so it will make sense down the road. Right now just file these things away if you’re new to the property. What you need to know, the show will tell you. There’s nothing to be gained by getting too cute or too inside, because the Watchmen audience is watching with fervor and interest. It’s about hooking the newbies, and especially with the intricacy of this story, it has to be carefully laid out.
As villains, the Rorschach-mask wearing terrorist nationalists are pretty basic, like Pumpkin Spice Latte basic. They’re easy to hate and delineate the conspiracy theory “Reptilians are our overlords” and “people of a different color are trash” concept from the police and authority figures, who are not by any means Captain America types, right down to Chief Cokehead… that was harsh, but we’re supposed to see him as flawed, even if he’s not a particularly bad guy. I mean, he went to “Black Oklahoma” and played Curly in high school, plus he babysat Angela’s kids.
And he’s also dead. Judd Crawford hanging from a tree with Will Reeves underneath wielding the very same note that he found after the vehicle/carriage attack nearly a century before explained both why we saw that sequence originally and where we are in this alternate version of the United States (and the world). We flip from 1921 to September 9, 2019 once we see the first attack of the current generation. By the way, just to make sure it’s clear for context, this event and the current time of the show takes place 34 years after the events of the comic, in a world where all of what happened back then DID happen back then. We find that out via the “Minutemen” documentary special advertised for TV multiple times during the hour.
Why are the police wearing masks? Rorschach followers wore the masks and attacked police in their homes, so the officers had to become anonymous for protection. No question there’s some Alt-Right intentionality here, but here’s the thing about that…it’s the reality of today and there’s no reason to run from it. It might run some viewers off, but it also makes the show feel not just entertaining, not just relevant, but RESONANT.
Back to Judd for a moment, we spent a great deal of time getting to know him only for him to be ripped away, and once you saw the black and white photo of him and his father, you could begin to see that trip to the hospital (which was likely bogus, but even if not) was going to be the last ride he’d ever take. Don Johnson was likable and seemed to be a perfect amalgam of law and order… and recklessness. He leaves behind a widow, played by Frances Fisher, who is more than capable of playing someone out for vengeance if they wanted to go there. One of the first things I saw her in was as a stalker-level lonely woman in Law & Order that committed a murder, and she was outstanding.
A ton happened in the opener, with Adrian Veidt appearing as a man of wealth, which he amassed as part of the comic, and I’ll leave it there, because that story has to be retold. Jeremy Irons is awesome, and him portraying an older Veidt, just as eccentric and odd as ever, is a really good fit. As much happened in the first hour, you’re left with a sense that there’s a LOT coming and I can’t wait to see how the past is weaved into the present.
One final takeaway tonight, in addition to the beautiful direction from Nicole Kassell, the score…holy cow the score. Nobody does it better (maybe along with Ramin Djawadi now) than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The Social Network is arguably my favorite score ever, and instantly when the first beat of Watchmen hit, it’s clear it’s them, and it’s clear they’re out to win more awards. It was a flawless score for this story, with the pulse pounding and the bass hits and the electronica and all of it. I can’t tell you how much I loved this. It will be a part of my collection, no doubt about it.
I’ll leave it there. We’ll go into much more detail in future weeks, but right now, we’re still getting to know Angela, Wade/Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson, and that mask and the look and idea behind it, where the reflection almost looks like the Rorschach face at times is such a nice touch), and all the rest. There was definitely a little A Clockwork Orange feel to that sequence, which resulted in us finding out what justice looks like with the secret police in alternate 2019 due to the past activities of the Seventh Cavalry. Guns that have to be “unlocked” and provisioned, regulations that keep them from doing the job in public, and don’t think the fact they’re rocking yellow with the uniforms escaped my eye.
Everything we’re seeing is for a purpose, and all of it clicked, even the smiley face egg yolks that hopefully “red-fredations” didn’t pay for. The font on the episode title and the locales worked, the open that reminded me of the start of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood worked, and an hour that never let up really worked. This felt unlike anything else on TV. I thought about it for a while after finishing it. In fact, I still am. It’s going to be so much fun to cover this show and enjoy it along with you. We’re talking about me doing a weekly podcast in addition to the Pop 6 focused exclusively on Watchmen. Stay tuned. If I can make the time, it will happen.
RECOMMENDATION: Purchase Watchmen or get it somehow from a library, etc… and spend the time to read it. It’s important and it will make things like the Nite Owl flying vehicle that crashed after the Cattle Ranch incident all fall into place into your mind. You don’t have to, but at least find a good primer and familiarize yourself with the material. The experience is so much richer for fans, of which I consider myself a gigantic one. I discovered this weekend I had a framed poster, a limited edition autographed companion guide, a first edition Rorschach statue, and other things I had forgotten. Needless to say…
…I’m happy to be in this world again.
I’m @JMartZone. I have no problem saying no to taking ink blot tests.