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I think HBO’s Watchmen is tremendous television. Lots of people will strongly disagree.

The opening 10 minutes of HBO’s new Watchmen series — not a straight adaptation of the acclaimed 1986 graphic novel but a companion to it — are a statement of purpose rarely seen on TV: “Here is what this show is,” they say. “If you’d rather not watch this kind of show, we wanted to let you know up front.” Watchmen is set in 2019, but these opening 10 minutes depict the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race massacre of 1921. The massacre was pure malevolent violence committed on Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” undertaken by white citizens who killed dozens and wounded even more (exact totals are unknown) while burning black property to the ground. It is widely considered one of the most shocking acts of racial violence in American history, and it’s core to what Watchmen is saying about America today. Then again, also core to Watchmen is the idea of Bass Reeves, a black marshal from Oklahoma whose exploits are celebrated in a silent film that plays in a Tulsa movie theater during the series’ opening moments. The intersection of race and power — and more specifically, how that power is so often handed to white people, while black people are only allowed it if they uphold the white status quo — weighs heavily on Watchmen ’s mind from the first.If you watch these first 10 minutes (hell, if you just read my description of them), you might be tempted to wonder why a moment so thoroughly steeped in all of the country’s worst selves is leading into what is, at least nominally, a superhero show. You might wonder whether this sequence is being used to infuse Watchmen with false gravitas. Rating: 5 out of 5vox-mark vox-mark vox-mark vox-mark vox-markYou might also wonder, if you’re aware of who’s on the show’s creative team, whether a group that boasts lots of black voices but is headed up by a white showrunner (Damon Lindelof) and white director (Nicole Kassell) is the right one to tell this particular story, and whether the genre they’re using to tell it is the best one. You might wonder why the first episode, at least, seems to take a cavalier approach to real-world stories about white supremacists’ relationship with police forces in the US.But even if you hold these concerns, I would say you should keep watching. Watchmen is a big and bold series, unlike any other TV show I’ve ever seen, and just when you think it’s shown you all of its many faces, it reveals another one. It makes missteps here and there, but at its heart, it remains a story about examining the fraught state of the world today through the lens of superhero tropes, just as the original comic did. Then again, I would say that. I’m extremely white, and to watch a show like this, on some level, is low-risk for me. I think Watchmen handles its racial elements well, but you might disagree. And if you do, the show wants to make sure you know exactly what it’s doing from the first.So why do I think it works? It’s all a matter of perspective.Damon Lindelof’s TV shows obsess over the idea of a story warping and changing based on who’s telling it — and who’s listeningEvery so often, the show just cuts to Jeremy Irons engaging in macabre comic violence.HBO Watchmen is the first TV project from Lost co-creator Lindelof since the end of his three-season series The Leftovers , which he co-created with Tom Perrotta and which ran from 2014 to 2017. The Leftovers ’ viewership was low, but the show’s mixture of bold storytelling choices and existential despair won it a fervid cult audience. And in many ways, Watchmen seems like an attempt to blend the existentially weighty themes of The Leftovers with the poppier tones of Lost . For the most part, it succeeds.(Here I should note that Lindelof and I are friendly, to the degree where if we run into each other in public, we’ll usually talk for several minutes. Take my praise with as many grains of salt as you need.) Beyond thematic similarities, there’s one big reason Lindelof is an inspired choice to adapt Watchmen : His career is all about examining how point-of-view changes a story. Lost famously centered on one character in every episode, whose flashbacks would inform the on-Island action. And The Leftovers took this approach even further, with occasional episodes that never left a particular point-of-view, so you were glued to one character’s hip. Even in episodes that were framed around more than one character’s point-of-view, The Leftovers rarely exceeded three or four perspectives. The implication of Lindelof’s work is clear: A story changes based on who’s telling it.That’s also the implication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s original Watchmen comic. (Moore, who hates adaptations of his work, declined to have his name associated with the new TV show.) The 12-issue story featured entire installments that were just about a single character’s journey, including one memorable issue about the life and transcendence of the godlike Dr. Manhattan and another about the horrible childhood of the fascistic Rorschach. Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen was so groundbreaking that it also shifted the point-of-view in superhero stories in general. What happens if you tell a story typically associated with escapism and brave heroes doing brave things, but through the eyes of a bunch of psychologically damaged people who beat up criminals because that’s the only way they can feel anything at all? What happens if you tell traditional stories about power, but in a way that emphasizes how little power any of the characters actually have in the face of looming nuclear apocalypse?Lindelof and his ...Read more

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