Comics On TV

Everything We Know About HBO's Watchmen TV Series

Much-anticipated graphic novel adaptation stars Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Tom Mison, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Jean Smart, Don Johnson, and more.

by | September 11, 2019 | Comments

One of the more surprising series joining the comic book TV show universe is HBO’s Watchmen, an ambitious project that seems like the concept’s best destiny. The 2009 feature film version, which was directed by Zack Snyder and received only a 64% Tomatometer score, was the end result of a protracted development process that saw filmmakers like Terry Gilliam suggest the material was better suited to a high-end television miniseries. But what fans of the comic book will get when it debuts Oct. 20 is something much stranger and more daring than a simple adaptation. Take a look at what we what know about the program so far.


The Source Material

WATCHMEN, Rorschach, as drawn by co-creator Dave Gibbons, 2009. ©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by ©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark 12-issue series debuted in 1985 to immediate acclaim. Based on the Charlton Comics characters DC Comics acquired in 1983, Moore and Gibbons envisioned a world in which costumed heroes surfaced in the 1930s and changed the course of history. True historical events like the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency were drastically altered by costume vigilantes and the one genuine super-powered being in their midst.

The story itself is set after the various mystery men have all retired, died, or found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Some, like Adrian Veidt parlayed their notoriety into corporate success. Others, like the masked Rorschach, still try to hold back the tide of anarchy in a world completely and utterly tired of their shenanigans. Meanwhile, the one genuine superhero, Dr. Manhattan, finds himself less and less concerned with humanity’s petty squabbles as his consciousness continues to expand into cosmic realms.

And as the tale begins, one of their number – the Comedian – is found dead. Rorschach sets out to learn the truth behind the murder and uncovers a vast and seemingly sinister plot.

The events detailed in the book are, according to executive producer Damon Lindelof, 100 percent canon and the official past of the television series.

“We’re not going to mess with it,” he told reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. “One of the rules that we had as storytellers, writers, and even once we got into the production of the show was that everything that happened in those 12 issues could not be messed with. We were married to it and so there’s no rebooting happening.”


The Premise

Watchmen season 1 teaser trailer 1 screenshot (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

The canonicity of the original Watchmen comic book series matters because the television series takes place decades after those events. As Lindelof revealed in a letter to fans last year, the series will be something of a sequel (though he avoided using that word) set in contemporary times. Rorschach uncovered the truth behind the Comedian’s death, Adrian Veidt executed his plan, and Dr. Manhattan disappeared 34 years ago.

View this post on Instagram

Day 140.

A post shared by Damon (@damonlindelof) on

But as Lindelof told reporters in August, “It is definitely not supposed to be a world that you recognize. We’re using alternate history, science fiction, [and] popular fiction to Trojan Horse themes that are prevalent in the real world in a fictional one.”

The essence of Watchmen, both the comic book and the television series, at least in his view, is to use the superhero tropes to examine “institutions and culture and politics and the things that inform our society, and that’s the rich mix that makes the show the show.”

So what is it actually about? To start with, it’s about white supremacy. A group known as the Seventh Calvary adopts the Rorschach mask and begins targeting police officers in Tulsa, Oklahoma. To protect themselves, the police are forced to take on masks of their own. To the producer, the issues of race and policing felt like “the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States” in 2019.


Regina King portrait Watchmen season 1 (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

Click for full image (new tab)

Of course, with protagonist Angela Abar (Regina King) – a wife, mother of three, and lead detective in Tulsa Police Force – taking part in masked law enforcement, the issue of institutionalized white supremacy may not seem as clear-cut as it otherwise might be, but Lindelof said “those contradictions … were things that we were very aware of in the storytelling, and tried to square to the best of our ability, but there are no easy answers.”

As in the Watchmen comic, complex social issues cannot be solved with a faked alien invasion.

“There’s no defeating white supremacy,” Lindelof added. “It’s not going anywhere, but it felt like it was pretty formidable foe.”

The series will also examine what it means to wear a mask. As executive producer and episode director Nicole Kassell put it in a recent featurette, Watchmen “explores the complexity of who you are when you wear a mask, who you are when you’re not wearing a mask.” With characters directly stating opinions like “masks save lives” and “masks make men cruel,” it is tempting to see the costume accessory as a metaphor for the gun control debate. But looking back at the Watchmen comic, we’re tempted to say the mask — and the anonymity it offers — is more a metaphor for the use of force itself regardless of the tools involved.

But as Irons says in the featurette, “Like all good stories, the truth unwraps itself slowly,” so our understanding of the program may be very different by the end of its first season.”

Other details we know include the lack of an internet in Watchmen’s 2019 and the president who shut down the entire concept: Robert Redford. As Lindelof explained, the Nixon of Watchmen remained in office until his death. Vice President Gerald Ford replaced him, but lost to Redford in 1992. The former actor remains in power in 2019. While the notion contains a satirical jab – just as Nixon’s life-long presidency did in the comic book – Lindelof said he plans to use the Redford presidency to explore another powerful idea: a well-intentioned liberal who stayed in power too long.


The Cast

Besides King, the cast includes Don JohnsonTim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Adelaide ClemensAndrew Howard, Jeremy Irons, Tom Mison, Frances FisherJacob Ming-Trent, and Yahya Abdul-Mahteen II.

Other cast members include Jean Smart, Sara Vickers, Hong Chau, Dustin Ingram, and James Wolk, as well as child actors Dylan Schombing, Lily Rose Smith, and Adelynn Spoon.

In November 2018, word broke that Iron would be playing Adrian Veidt, confirming Lindelof’s intent to include at least one familiar character from the comic book. In the teaser, he can be seen mediating on a desk, recalling the Veidt of the comic book. In that story, he was the ultimate perpetrator of the conspiracy the Comedian and Rorschach uncovered. But in defiance of all comic book bad guys, his monstrous plan would ultimately better the world. Well, at least for a time. Rorschach sent his journal detailing Veidt’s crime to an extreme right-wing publication – no doubt the reason he becomes a hero among the Seventh Cavalry – its publication seemingly prevented Veidt’s utopia from surviving the Nixon Administration.

Meanwhile, Clemens will play Pirate Jenny, a clear reference to the Tales of the Black Freighter comic strip inside Watchmen, which is itself a reference back to the song “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera. Smart is playing FBI Agent Angela Blake, who in a former life was the hero known as Silk Spectre. Also, as evidenced from the Comic-Con trailer, Dr. Manhattan will be returning to Earth, though it is still unclear who is playing him.


Watchmen season 1 teaser trailer 1 screenshot (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

Also, the earlier teaser suggested a new mirror-masked Rorschach will be on the scene. This appears to be Nelson’s character Looking Glass, whose name underscores the anonymity he tries to utilize. In fact, that theme of obscured identity is strong across the television series as the police, militia members, and potential vigilantes alike use masks to hide themselves from opponents and the public at large. Clearly, privacy is on Lindelof’s mind. And in a 2019 where both Apple and Facebook trade on their ability to keep user information safe (but don’t always succeed), it serves as a good underlying panic in the same way the original comic book traded on the fear of nuclear annihilation.


The Reznor/Ross Sound

Watchmen season 1 teaser trailer 1 screenshot (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

Proving the series will be very different from other superhero shows, the musical score will be provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of The Social Network and Gone Girl. Unlike the often rousing themes of superhero films or even the pulse-pounding tracks of The Flash or Arrow during its action scenes, Reznor and Ross are known for quieter, deliberate work. Fitting for a show that will no doubt eschew the usual superhero fights for something more graphic, harrowing, and pointed. Of course, they are capable of the bigger sweep as well, but one look at the teaser indicates bombastic music will be used in a more ironic way than, say, Avengers: Endgame.


The Original Writer Is Not Involved

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 6: Portrait of English comic book writer Alan Moore, taken on September 6, 2013. Moore is often considered the finest writer in the comics medium, and is best known for his graphic novels Watchmen and V For Vendetta. (Photo by Kevin Nixon/SFX Magazine via Getty Images)

Unlike many comic book adaptations these days, Watchmen will not feature input or even the approval of writer Moore. The notoriously cantankerous author had a bad run with Hollywood thanks to projects like V for Vendetta and League of Extraordinary Gentleman, leading to him refusing credit on subsequent films and even the money owed to him from those adaptations and sending the profit participation off to artists like Watchmen’s Dave Gibbons.

Lindelof told TCA reporters that he tried to reach out to Moore, but was met with the ire the author reserves for all Hollywood types trying to adapt his work. But as the original comic book itself appropriated older ideas from the Charlton Comics, Lindelof felt he was right to follow in Moore’s footsteps and appropriate Watchmen for himself.

“I do feel like the spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit, a rebellious spirit, and that if you told Alan Moore in 1984 or ’85 or ’86, ‘You’re not allowed to do this because Superman’s creator or Swamp Thing’s creator doesn’t want you to do it,’ he would say, ‘F— you, I’m doing it anyway,’” he explained. “I’m channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, ‘F– you, I’m doing it anyway.’”


Release Date

Don Johnson in Watchmen season 1 teaser trailer 1 screenshot (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

The nine-episode series will debut at 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 20. Considering the sort of passion Watchmen inspires from its fans – look at any discussion thread about Snyder’s film version or DC’s decision to make Watchmen prequel comics in 2010 – it is likely the series will become one of the most talked about comic book–based projects of 2019.

Watchmen will premiere Oct. 20, 2019 on HBO.

Updated Sept. 3 with release date.


Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

GIFs Musical 2016 free movies Acorn TV Spectrum Originals Music Certified Fresh RT History toy story Podcast San Diego Comic-Con See It Skip It BBC FXX Mindy Kaling blaxploitation zombies E! Photos Super Bowl 007 Comedy E3 First Look Comic Book Superheroe Holidays VICE Rocky Adult Swim witnail game show Horror Sundance Fall TV CW Seed strong female leads Paramount Mystery finale SDCC Pirates crossover Watching Series hispanic spider-man Trailer Year in Review Amazon Prime 2018 Awards adventure YouTube Red Valentine's Day MTV dragons Summer batman Cosplay binge Binge Guide CNN Fantasy Rock IFC Films Mudbound The CW Awards Tour Amazon Prime Video Martial Arts Heroines biography Esquire Drama Peacock Animation Television Academy singing competition hist Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Crackle social media BET American Society of Cinematographers festivals Song of Ice and Fire Star Trek Tarantino cancelled TV shows war National Geographic Superheroes FX New York Comic Con Emmys Epix book AMC Disney Plus CBS All Access NYCC Comedy Central Family Toys Kids & Family Anna Paquin TLC DC Comics ghosts APB canceled TV shows 20th Century Fox casting zero dark thirty Chernobyl Netflix spanish language DC Universe Video Games Walt Disney Pictures YouTube Premium The Arrangement Freeform doctor who PaleyFest 2017 green book Disney Channel Apple TCA 2017 spinoff Emmy Nominations composers WGN Christmas revenge Reality 2015 Nat Geo politics Opinion Biopics miniseries Ellie Kemper Star Wars 71st Emmy Awards Comics on TV teaser diversity ratings cats Pet Sematary cancelled Amazon President TBS movies TNT cancelled television docudrama joker south america halloween Spike Trophy Talk ABC Family VH1 45 crime streaming Vudu adaptation CBS dc Shondaland DC streaming service boxoffice MSNBC award winner Mary Poppins Returns Tomatazos children's TV TIFF Pop video Lifetime Elton John Character Guide SundanceTV Western mockumentary discovery thriller spy thriller theme song Tumblr cults Schedule anthology GLAAD Nominations Cartoon Network based on movie Women's History Month Syfy Teen Film Festival Ovation Best and Worst Starz Paramount Network Oscars what to watch zombie Sony Pictures Extras LGBT Ghostbusters 21st Century Fox foreign vampires tv talk Pride Month sequel TCA Thanksgiving History Polls and Games slashers anime Calendar police drama BBC America unscripted sitcom Disney robots historical drama natural history Marathons Masterpiece 2019 cancelled TV series aliens Pixar Logo true crime CMT TCM SXSW 24 frames Mary Tyler Moore latino sports DGA Marvel spain Action TV Land TV renewals Food Network Sundance Now cinemax ABC justice league cars richard e. Grant Stephen King Arrowverse Britbox dramedy harry potter RT21 Nickelodeon MCU TruTV Sci-Fi X-Men Cannes Hulu Film Universal USA NBC technology animated El Rey Fox News Musicals Columbia Pictures Interview Sneak Peek comiccon science fiction WarnerMedia canceled The Witch Mary poppins Set visit Premiere Dates nature disaster dceu A&E DirecTV jamie lee curtis HBO Quiz Writers Guild of America Brie Larson series Spring TV Warner Bros. Trivia medical drama talk show Red Carpet supernatural elevated horror mutant Infographic Winners First Reviews psycho quibi GoT stand-up comedy Creative Arts Emmys Country Countdown facebook Election Bravo crime thriller period drama Rocketman renewed TV shows PBS Box Office Disney streaming service HBO Max crime drama Lucasfilm Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt travel golden globes Black Mirror serial killer kids OWN Apple TV+ TV YA Reality Competition Showtime Winter TV transformers IFC psychological thriller comic political drama Shudder Grammys FOX romance television Rom-Com LGBTQ cops ITV cooking YouTube Dark Horse Comics USA Network The Walking Dead game of thrones Lionsgate ESPN Captain marvel space