How HBO's 'Watchmen' embraces the political bent, bonkers spirit of seminal '80s comic

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

The 2019 landscape of HBO’s “Watchmen” has its reality-stretching quirks: a godlike guy hanging out on Mars, the presence of dirigibles but not cellphones, and President Robert Redford. Oh, and don't forget the rainstorms of interdimensional baby alien squid.

Look closer, though, and the highly anticipated continuation of the seminal 1980s comic book series shows a divided America not unlike our own as it tackles class struggles, systemic racism and white supremacy. And it’s a new “Watchmen” (premiering Sunday, 9 EDT/PDT) that fully embraces the politically charged and completely bonkers spirit of what came before.

“The world of ‘Watchmen,’ that comic did not shy away at all,” says star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The modern followup acts as "a reminder of our dark history, but also our dark present we're living in and dealing with right now.”

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HBO's highly anticipated "Watchmen" series stars (from left) Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chao, Regina King, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Tim Blake Nelson.

Both the comic and TV version of “Watchmen” (there was also a 2009 film)  are alternate histories of the United States, exploring the ripple effects if superheroes were real.   In their history, we won the Vietnam War with the help of the supremely powerful Dr. Manhattan and the Asian nation became the 51st state. And Richard Nixon wasn’t taken down by Watergate, but instead nixed term limits and served into the 1980s. 

The HBO series is set 34 years after the events of the comic, which took place in an alternate 1985 and saw World War III staved off by a space squid that landed in New York City and killed 3 million people with a psychic blast. This “Watchmen” begins with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and follows that city’s cops, who wear yellow masks to keep their identities secret. They're fighting  the terrorist group Seventh Kavalry, a modern version of the Ku Klux Klan clad in the headwear of infamous Watchmen vigilante Rorschach. 

Masked cop Angela Abar (Regina King) leads the effort against the white supremacist group Seventh Kavalry in "Watchmen."

Initially, executive producer Damon Lindelof (“The Leftovers,” “Lost”) was concerned about “being a cover band, trying to rip off the original ‘Watchmen.’ ” So he aimed to be as original as the ‘80s storyline: Before weaving in elements of the past, the nine-episode first season focuses on Angela Abar (Regina King), a detective who goes by the superhero moniker Sister Night, and other new characters including her husband, Cal Abar (Abdul-Mateen), human lie detector Looking Glass (Tulsa, Oklahoma, native Tim Blake Nelson) and wheelchair-bound mystery man Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.).

Old-school personalities are there, too, and not just Dr. Manhattan on his Martian sojourn. FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), an original "Watchmen" superhero known as Silk Spectre who now takes down costumed vigilantes, is called to Tulsa and becomes involved in the problems and conspiracies. Enigmatic trillionaire Lady Trieu is also in town, building the equally puzzling Millennium Clock. Then there's the comic's hero-turned-antagonist Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), who's  involved in a strange bit of business at bucolic castle estate.

Listen to this week's episode of USA TODAY's podcast, The Mothership, to hear our TV Critic's six episode review of HBO's "Watchmen" in the player below.

Lindelof likens a viewer unfamiliar with the "Watchmen" saga to an early follower of Christianity who first hears of Jesus Christ, but finds the New Testament didn’t erase the Old: “Everything that you know is true - Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Daniel in the lion's den, the parting of the Red Sea, all of that stuff happened – but we want to tell you this new story as well.”

Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Nicole Kassell are creative forces behind HBO's "Watchmen," a continuation of the seminal 1980s comic book.

The seminal “Watchmen” comic is considered sacrosanct  by many. “It really touched me that it's truly adult,” says executive producer Nicole Kassell, who directs the first two episodes. “There are some very poetic, poignant statements.”

Smart also was unfamiliar with the comic, although her son’s friend “just about passed out” learning she’d be playing an iconic character. Chau hadn’t heard of it either, leading Lindelof to spend two and a half hours explaining the story. “I was like, ‘Wait, what's going on?!’ It was a lot to digest.”

Irons is another self-described “Watchmen virgin” who stars as the genius antagonist Adrian, whose bizarre journey in the show borrows from the tale-within-a-tale aspect of the comic. “We're used to storytelling like this at the moment,” he says. “It demands quite a lot of the audience, and I think it's interesting.”

Jeremy Irons stars as original "Watchmen" character Adrian Veidt in the new HBO series.

The "Watchmen” comics deconstructed the popular superheroes of the ‘80s, but Lindelof instead focuses on another central theme, how masks cover one’s face yet also reveal something about identity. “We all hide little parts of ourselves, even if it's just hiding behind sarcasm,” Smart says.

King’s main protagonist wears multiple masks – physical and metaphorical – and “she's a representation of just every human being,” the actress says. “We switch our masks all the time.”

Gossett connected to that element, and says “it goes deeper than Damon realized. He touched on something very sensitive. From the end of slavery until now, everybody has had to wear a mask of some sort. Our mutual survival as a people has to do with us dropping those masks, once and for all.”

Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) was a superhero in the 1980s and now is an FBI agent hunting masked vigilantes in "Watchmen."

Digging into issues of the day is also a “Watchmen” hallmark. The original comic wrestled with Cold War paranoia and nuclear fears, so it made sense to Lindelof that race be central to the new series. And “because I’m a white guy,” making sure he treated those issues with respect worried and challenged him.

“I can listen to the ‘1619’ podcast or talk about all the Ta-Nehisi Coates books I've read until I'm blue in the face,” Lindelof says. But “when I walk into a department store, nobody is following me around. I'm not getting pulled over. But at the same time, I don't think that you can tell any story, fictional or otherwise, that sort of models the realities of living in America today that is not dealing with race. It just comes up in every way, shape and form.”

Eccentric masked man Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson, center) is a part of a Tulsa police force who hide their identities in "Watchmen."

The show “is a version of our world, but it also pokes at (the issue of), well, we can end up here," King says. "You can't help but kind of go, ‘Huh. Did Damon have a crystal ball in some ways?” Angela represents  "the history of black people in America: It's your history, taken away from you and not knowing where you're from.”

“Watchmen” is an alt-history tale, yet its extremes “reflect back on us exactly what we're experiencing in America right now in terms of friction points,” says Nelson. It’s the kind of show that examines those points “and demands that, yes, it is worth picking at some of these scars.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Watchmen': Regina King, Damon Lindelof capture comics' spirit on HBO