A man wearing a Rorschach mask throws a basketball through a portal, and it lands in the next room.
Police officers wear masks and superhero-type costumes and use aliases so they won’t be identified by vigilantes who want them dead.
A 104-year-old man in a wheelchair claims he’s the one who hanged a prominent leader from a high branch on a tree.
Every once in a while, it rains squids. Yes, squids.
If this sounds like a series that will have you lost from time to time: yes. After all, the showrunner is Damon Lindelof, who gave us the similarly opaque and weird and otherworldly “Lost.”
It’s also a bold, provocative, wickedly funny and consistently creative work, with clever visual touches in every episode, some nifty plot twists and turns and standout performances from Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Tim Blake Nelson, Don Johnson, Louis Gossett Jr. and (most entertaining of all) Jean Smart.
HBO’s “Watchmen” is a nine-part series based on the groundbreaking 1980s graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (which were adapted for a Zach Snyder film in 2009). It’s set in the present (with flashbacks to various decades in the 20th century), with the characters living in the “Watchmen” universe, in which the United States won the Vietnam War and made Vietnam the 51st state; Richard Nixon served multiple terms into the 1980s; Robert Redford succeeded Nixon as president in 1992 and is still in office, and, oh, yes, a giant alien squid landed on New York City, which led to the United States and Russia walking away from World War III because they had to worry about, you know, the giant squid.
The premiere episode opens with a depiction of the real-life Greenwood Massacre of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which whites murdered black men, women and children and burned their homes and businesses to the ground.
Nearly 100 years later, racial tensions are still simmering, with many whites resenting blacks who are prospering in part because of reparations, known as “Redfordations.” The members of the police force wear disguises and use superhero-type nicknames to remain anonymous to the underground, Rorschach mask-wearing, white nationalist racist thugs who call themselves the Seventh Kavalry, which is essentially just another name for the KKK.
Regina King delivers her typically memorable work as Detective Angela Aba, aka Sister Night, who tells everyone she’s retired from the force and is planning to open a bakery but is, in fact, still out there in her badass leather get-up and face paint, taking down the bad guys. After Angela’s beloved mentor is murdered, presumably at the hands of the Kavalry, the fragile peace in Tulsa is broken, and the city is on the verge of anarchy.
Jean Smart’s no-nonsense, straight-shooting (in more ways than one) and mysteriously motivated FBI special agent Laurie Blake swoops into town to monitor events and help the police department track down a killer. (She’s also keeping a close eye on the police and their tactics. Do you know the difference between a vigilante and a cop wearing a mask, she says at one point, then answers her own riddle: There is none.)
In flashbacks, we meet Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, who is conducting some of the most bizarre experiments imaginable, all with an eye toward saving the world. Another storyline involves the most powerful individual the world has ever known — who has been living on Mars for the past 30 years.
Fans of “Watchmen” will recognize some of these characters. If you’ve never read the comics or you didn’t see the movie, some of the references are going to fly by unnoticed, and it’s going to be a challenge to keep up with all the new developments without knowing about the past events that led to all of this.
Still, regardless of your depth of knowledge about this universe, certain episodes stand alone as strikingly effective set pieces, like the fifth installment, which takes us back to a 9/11-level tragedy in America and shows how many a survivor continues to deal with PTSD long after that fateful day.
Lindelof has said the nine-episode arc of “Watchmen” will not be open-ended and will tie up the loose ends in the finale. Having seen the first six episodes, I can only say there’s a LOT of closure still to come.
And I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.