It's hard to readily quantify just how weird 'Watchmen' is, but the first episode of the series does its best to ease you in as gently as it can.

For anyone who didn't read the comics (or watch Zack Snyder's adaptation of it), the general gist of the alternate world slowly begins to reveal itself over the course of the episode and the preceding episodes. With the benefit of technology, ecological crises have been averted. The US has been under the leadership of Robert Redford (yes, that Robert Redford) for decades, with reparations (or Redford-ations) have been given to the victims of racial violence.

For all of the emphasis on how strange the world is, the opening sequence of the opening episode is firmly set in reality - despite how strange it may seem. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, with an estimated 300 deaths occurring in the space of a single day when mobs of white people descended on what was known then as the Black Wall Street, an affluent part of the city that was populated by black people.

Watchmen S01E01 ReviewRegina King as Angela Abar / Sister Night - Credit: HBO

Yet, when it shoots forward into the present day, it's familiar enough to make the differences all the more strange. Police officers aren't allowed draw their weapons without authorisation from a far-away bureaucrat, and have to ask for consent to use their body-cams. Not only that, the police force is heavily integrated - as is nearly all of Tulsa, Oklahoma. All except for one part named Nixonville, wherein the Seventh Kavalry - an offshoot of the KKK that's chosen Rorschach, the anti-hero of the source comics, as their totem - hides out.

Throughout the opening episode, we're given glimpses of the source comics, but it's never particularly heavy-handed or even necessarily relevant whether you pick up on it or not. Dr. Manhattan only appears on TV news reports, the masks of Rorschach are barely acknowledged and could well be the familiar hoods of the KKK, Adrian Veidt is declared "officially dead". The heroes of the source material may still be there, but the world has simply moved on. Instead, there's a new breed of hero.

Tulsa, it seems, is home to a special breed of detective - ones that looks suspiciously like superheroes - and the reasons for it become clear, little by little. In a world where superheroes were once real, it makes sense that the police would adopt them in the same fashion and especially when it's done in a similar fashion to how we in the audience understand them to be. It's done for everyone else's safety, the families and the innocents, so that when the evil men come, they don't know where to look.

Don Johnson as Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford - Credit: HBODon Johnson as Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford - Credit: HBO

Although it's one episode in, it's clear that Regina King - who plays Angela Abar, also known as Sister Night - was a fantastic choice to take the lead. She has such an arresting (no pun intended) screen presence that whenever she speaks, it comes with a weight and a force. Likewise, the dynamic between her and Don Johnson's languid police chief is as familiar as any police procedural you can think of. This kind of familiarity allows us to follow the story, but again, it's the little differences from this world to ours that makes it all so weird.

Like any good police procedural - because, when you strip it back, that's 'Watchmen' feels like - it ends on a cliffhanger, and what a cliffhanger it is. Introducing and then killing off a main character like Don Johnson's police chief is nothing new, especially in HBO shows like 'Game of Thrones' or 'The Leftovers'. Here, however, the manner in which it's done - the very disturbing imagery of a lynched police officer, and a white one at that - speaks to something much more than just shock value. The original comics focused on the existential threat of East-West tensions and the very real belief that nuclear war was only a few minutes away. That threat ended - at least in the comics, anyway - by a giant alien squid landing in the middle of New York and refocusing people's fears on something larger.

In this world, the existential threat is racial violence. The question now is what it's going to take to refocus people's fears on something else?


Further thoughts:

  • Sister Night's costume is uh-mazing.
  • Jeremy Irons is in great nick for a guy who's 71.
  • Don Johnson doing cocaine has got to be a nod to 'Miami Vice', right?
  • The internet doesn't exist in this world, and honestly, that sounds like heaven.
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' soundtrack is also uh-mazing.