HBO’s Watchmen is the strangest show to come to TV in a minute: the kind of fictional world where FBI agents carry locked briefcases that contain giant blue dildos, police interrogations incorporate Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and a brazen set piece of a shoot-out between superheroes and white supremacists relies heavily (and explosively) on cows. Damon Lindelof’s new series, a long-anticipated “remix” of the cult 1980s graphic-novel series, is sublime and absurd. It’s a symphony in which the loudest note in every bar is proudly out of key. The plane it portrays, an alternative-history America in 2019, is at once disturbingly peculiar and unmistakably our own.
In this mirror version of reality, a superstar liberal president has managed to pass both a reparations bill and a gun-control bill, twin policies that have inflamed societal tensions past a breaking point. Cops now tend to be the victims of police-involved shootings, as a result of restrictions on their use of deadly force. After a wave of synchronized attacks on members of the police force in Tulsa, Oklahoma, officers cover their faces with yellow masks, making them look oddly like emoji. Midway through the first episode, as the Tulsa cops gather for an emergency confab wearing a variety of bizarre outfits to conceal their identities—red balaclavas, leather cloaks, even a tatty panda costume—it dawned on me. Watchmen is set in a world where there is no internet. But Watchmen itself is the internet. It’s a fictionalized manifestation of the things life online has begotten: polarization, anonymity, doxxing, red-pilling, weaponized nostalgia, conspiracy theories. The supposed imposition of cultural orthodoxy. A sense of victimization that’s twisted into racist resentment.