The pilot episode of the new HBO series Watchmen is an enigma. There are moments of absolute filmmaking brilliance, with gorgeous set pieces and Emmy-worthy screenwriting. But just as often, if not more so, there are moments of pure incompetence, with amateur mistakes and cringe-inducing lines of dialogue. It’s a roller coaster ride with staggering highs, painful lows, and just enough intrigue to keep the audience interested for at least one more episode.
This “sequel” of sorts to the 2009 film of the same name is set in Tulsa, Okla. It takes place in an alternate timeline where Vietnam is the 51st state in the Union, Robert Redford is the long-tenured President of the United States, and police officers wear masks so they can’t be identified and subsequently targeted by criminals.
The show tries to reveal these things in a natural fashion, but instead does so in ways so confusing that the first half of the episode is almost unwatchable. Significant events happen in response to things that are entirely unestablished, but rather than being mysterious and interesting, the sequence is infuriating. Anyone who hasn’t read the graphic novel or seen the movie before viewing the episode will undoubtedly be lost within mere minutes of pressing play, and even if they have, it might still be a chore to figure out what’s going on.
The world-building in Watchmen is just lazy. This alternate timeline suggests that cell phones and the internet never came to fruition after the giant immortal naked blue guy single-handedly won the Vietnam War (don’t ask), but for some reason a character is listening to Crushed Up by Future while driving in his car at one point. Future’s career likely never would have started without the internet, so why does his music exist in this timeline?
To make things somehow weirder, about halfway through the episode, squids just start raining from the sky for some reason, and it’s never explained or even addressed by any of the characters. Clearly the director wanted to create some air of mystery, but that isn’t mysterious, it’s just confusing. Pretty much everything in this alternate timeline is the same as the real world, except for Vietnam, cell phones, Robert Redford, and squid rain.
Despite the problems with the world-building, there are glimmers of genius spread throughout the episode. The opening scene, which depicts a white supremacist raid in 1921 Tulsa, is gripping and brutal. Later in the episode, there’s a character development scene with some of the protagonists which is genuinely sweet and touching. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t any other significant scenes that help invest the audience in these characters, because up to that point, it’s difficult to care about them or root for them to survive.
The potential shown in these scattered scenes may be enough to convince viewers to stick with the show for next week’s episode, but the show’s struggle to establish anything concrete in the pilot is cause for concern. Jeremy Irons’ character, who is slated to be a significant part of this season, appears for one brief scene that tells the audience very little about his character and has nothing to do with the events of the episode. There’s a misplaced nod to the graphic novel in which an aircraft used by the original Watchmen appears halfway through the episode with no explanation whatsoever and then is never mentioned again. Everything feels rushed and sloppy.
The individual acting performances are promising, though, as Regina King, Don Johnson, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II are all fantastic. Johnson really steals the show, with a charismatic and believable portrayal of the Tulsa police chief. King and Abdul-Mateen are perfect for their roles, although the latter has been given just about nothing to do as of yet.
There are quite a few red flags flaring up in this pilot episode, and for the show’s sake, one can only hope they’re one-off problems. Pilot episodes tend to be made well before the rest of the show, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the season could improve dramatically, starting with the second episode. For now, it gets by on its enchanting premise and the pedigree of the graphic novel and film before it, but if it doesn’t find its footing soon, Watchmen won’t be watched for much longer.
Featured Image by HBO