In 2019, it might be impossible to convey how groundbreaking the original comic series felt and eventually proved to be. Three decades after its release in the mid ’80s, unorthodox superhero pop culture has become commonplace. There’s superhero fare that asks “…but what if superheroes are bad?” like . There’s superhero fare that applies some version of the complicated anti-hero trope to a caped crusader, like .
And thanks to the fervor and discussion over some clown, you may be aware superhero movies can be about something else or be a different type of movie dressed in a mask.
Into this muddled landscape comes the latest unorthodox superhero take from HBO: a new version of from Damon Lindelof, the critically beloved TV scribe behind two deeply engaging and enigmatic series that ended with vastly different levels of success. (And if you’ve read about TV on the Internet, there’s no need to clarify and any further).
Lindelof has gone to great lengths to make sure viewers know ahead of time that this should be called a reboot, adaptation, or even a reimagination. You’ve read his on why he chose this project, right? And this series may not necessarily do anything new in the unusual-superhero story realm, either. But Lindelof has an indisputable track record of being able to build engrossing worlds that ask massive philosophical questions, and last night’s premiere indicates that viewers have another highly dissectible and discussable journey ahead.
Minimal groundwork to lay
In this universe, President Redford (presumably Robert) has been in office for decades. Among his policies, he has awarded Black Americans some form of reparations (snidely referred to by some as Redfordations), annexed Vietnam as a state, and altered the process of acquiring firearms so it has more steps than it does in our current reality.
The other big alternate dimension changes all seem to center on law enforcement. After an incident known as the White Night (cleverly explained to an elementary class during a career day presentation on baking… in a sequence that succinctly distills the show’s tone), attacks on law enforcement have become a societal concern. The police have thus been instructed to wear masks and adopt cover stories, hiding their identity from those who might attempt to target them during downtime. To theoretically encourage peace and deescalation from the other side, too, more parameters and policies have been put in place to limit the police’s use of force. But for every remotely locked gun that requires sign-off from HQ, it seems authorities have also evolved and learned how to circumvent the new restrictions when they perceive force as necessary.
There are other real world tweaks and analogues (instead of , the world’s Internet recap might cover each episode of a made-up show called ). But really starts when a routine traffic stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, goes horribly wrong. Suddenly, authorities in the city are mobilizing to take on a white nationalist group called the 7th Kavalry, who deploy militia tactics against cops and hide behind what, to many, will be a familiar Rorschach mask. And our hero (or at least POV character), cop Angela Abar (played by Oscar-winner Regina King), suspects the 7K may be cooking up some kind of explosive-driven larger act of violence.
Ambitious in theme, ambitious in TV making
Somewhat miraculously considering the complex source material, for background and buildup. Based on last night’s episode, no one needs to worry about whether or not they’ve read (or viewed the Zack Snyder adaptation of) the original . Presumably, that background knowledge will lend itself to Easter eggs and identifying parallels, but Lindelof has set up a contained universe we can understand because of how it plays with present-day society, not the world of a classic comic.
And, boy, does steer straight into some of the toughest topics of 2019: white nationalism, police brutality, race relations, doxing and targeting, solving problems with tech, how to address history’s bad behavior, etc. The phrases “liberal tears” and “race traitors” are uttered, and Abar explains an ignorant elementary school kid’s provoking behavior to her son succinctly: “He’s not racist—but he’s off to a good start.”
This may be the show’s most explicit tie to the comic—in the way that Alan Moore and his team examined the complexity of the Cold War in America, Lindelof has a similar desire to think through this moment in American history. Again, Lindelof is no stranger to grappling with these sorts of heady topics, but the amount of information or resolution his work has traditionally provided can result in dramatically different levels of satisfaction.
Here’s one micro-example: it feels odd to start this series with a historical flashback to the Tulsa Race Massacre on Black Wall Street. That tragedy certainly still resonates (and left open wounds) nearly 100 years later. But there are so many modern examples of violence involving race and authority—although the series was obviously written long before, just last week, a Fort Worth police officer was charged with murder for fatally shooting Atatiana Jefferson at her home while she played video games with a young nephew. So why does draw from the past instead?
But Lindelof clearly has some idea he’s preparing to unfold about how we view the past. He teases this with the premiere’s reimagining of the musical (which has a fuzzy view of history, if you’re unfamiliar) or an trailer dripping with nostalgia about heroes of the past (who happen to be referenced in the canon universe). Some major TV critics have already watched to the season’s midway point, and their reviews tend to leave readers with the impression that the premiere episode’s disparate parts—the historical flashback, some cutaways to Jeremy Irons in a castle, and the main thread following Abar—will eventually come together in an informative, earned, satisfying manner. (Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall offers an opinionated but non-spoiler look at the series informed by six of nine episodes, for instance.)
So in this vein, maybe ‘s first season leans more than , and viewers rightfully nervous about how a piece of fiction deals with these very real-world issues can breathe easy for the moment. Some kind of point looms.
For now, no one should be nervous at least about the quality of TV on display with . To tackle its big issues, the show deploys an even bigger amount of talent on- and offscreen. Lindelof trusted director Nicole Kassell (, and one-offs on and ) with the first hour, and the result is striking. Some of these sequences—cop cars navigating claustrophobic streets from above, Abar walking the modern Black Wall Street from a low angle, a final set piece staged among cattle grazing at night—can be in the running for the most visually rich things you’ll see on TV this year. The pulsing soundtrack pulling everything together might sound familiar to David Fincher fans, as Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch are at it again here. And King as Abar and Don Johnson (yes, one, of ) as Police Chief Judd keep you glued to and a tad suspicious of each sequence that unfolds. Cast members like Irons and Jean Smart can’t lay low forever, either.
After watching the debut, leaves a lot of questions. Are these masked cops any better than the masked extremists they’re targeting? How the heck do the glimpses we get of Dr. Manhattan on Mars and the Archie aircraft factor in and tie the superhuman to the human? What caused the white nationalists to adopt Rorschach imagery, and do they have a big plan in waiting? Does HBO finally have a post-signature show? (And are the DC Comics offices celebrating indefinitely and forgetting about MCU misery for a while?)
No matter how those threads play out, the curiosity and craft displayed in this first hour should encourage anyone to buckle in for ‘s initial nine episodes—even if it eventually involves Smoke Monsters and multiple timelines.
9 with 9 posters participating