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Film & TV

HBO’s Wild Take on Watchmen

James Wolk arrives at the premier of the HBO series Watchmen in Los Angeles, Calif., October 14, 2019. (Monica Almeida/Reuters)

Don Johnson as a police chief busting out a number from Oklahoma! isn’t even one of the top ten strangest things to happen on the debut episode of Watchmen, which takes over HBO’s prestige slot of Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern this weekend.

Don Johnson in Watchmen (Mark Hill/HBO)

HBO sent out six of the nine-episode first season, but I’ve only just gotten through the pilot. This isn’t a review because I don’t yet know what to make of the new sci-fi drama from Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost. The first episode is mostly world-building and overlaps very little with Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen movie (which I think is one of the best comic-book movies ever) or the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons graphic novel on which it is based. (Moore’s name is again absent from the credits, as it was from the movie; he doesn’t like these adaptations.)

HBO’s new show is an alternate-reality piece that reminds me of Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s 2019 America, where Robert Redford has been president for 30 years, Vietnam is apparently a U.S. state and Richard Nixon’s face seems to be carved on Mount Rushmore. President Redford pushed through reparations payments for black Americans, which are derisively known on the right as “Redfordations.” White supremacists are on the march, via a Klan-type outfit called the Seventh Cavalry, and they’re so dangerous that the police (many of whom are black) have taken extreme measures in response. They hide their faces under masks (while the white supremacists use the Rorschach masks from the original Watchmen), yet they are so restricted by regulations that their sidearms are locked and unusable without express phone authorization from headquarters, even in the midst of a dangerous situation.

Johnson plays the benevolent, anti-racist police leader who, after one of his black cops is shot, pushes through an emergency measure to unlock the cops’ firearms. There’s a scene evoking the Ludovico Technique from A Clockwork Orange and the brainwashing sequence from The Parallax View that is designed to suss out a suspected white supremacist by gauging his reaction to agitprop videos. Oh, and Jeremy Irons plays a nudist playwright-playboy who gets around on horseback and lives in a castle.

Jeremy Irons in Watchmen (Colin Hutton/HBO)

What’s going on here? I doubt I’ll get through all six episodes today but I hope to file a review in the coming days.

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