What We Watch When We Watch the Watchmen

After an ambiguous Instagram post and hearing the phrase “being in talks,” it looks like HBO has ordered a Watchmen pilot from Damon Lindelof. HBO’s worked with Lindelof before on The Leftovers, which earned a 93 on Metacritic for this its most recent season.

For those of you unfamiliar with Watchmen, the graphic novel portrays superheroes in a realistic fashion, exploring what global politics might look like in a world with superheroes and how one can contend, existentially, with the presence of superhumans.Watchmen

Hopefully, the show will be another hit in the golden age of television. Which, confusingly enough, is actually the second or third golden age of television. The first took place in the 1940s and 50s, and the second might exist depending on whether you think that Hasslehoff in Baywatch represented the apex of an art form.

Beyond just being an exciting piece of IP to see transmogrified into a TV series, a Watchmen show  will be sitting right at the center of a few fault lines in the TV and film industries. It’s fitting that HBO is producing the show since most would agree that HBO ushered in the golden age of TV with The Sopranos in 1999. Its cable competitors mostly built their scripts around ad breaks and plug-and-play characters, and they failed to give their writers much creative freedom.

But subscription channels like HBO weren’t constrained by advertisements. The Sopranos’ success forced cable and other subscription channels to produce competitive TV shows like Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, and Mad Men. Presto, you’re in the second golden age of TV (third, if you count The Hoff).

At the same time—and for a multitude of reasons—the film industry is falling into another section of the same swamp that cable TV had been stuck in. Innovation in popular films (not all films, necessarily) is low. Consider the top 10 grossing films from 1999, the same year The Sopranos came out. Among them are original IP like The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Big Daddy, The Mummy, and The Blair Witch Project. Now, take a look at the top 10 grossing films of 2017 thus far. Star Wars: Episode 8, The Fast and The Furious 8, and Transformers: The Last Knight are the top three. In the modern film industry, the value of a story is determined in part by how well it can be reproduced and transposed to new media. Original material is risky, but there’s an increasing hunger for it.

In much the same way that subscription channels disrupted cable TV, the current trends in both film and TV are being disrupted by streaming services like Netflix. It’s too early to tell what kind of influence Netflix’s business model will have on the way we tell stories, but early signs point to feeding our hunger for originality gavage-style with $6 billion worth of high-protein TV slurry.

Which brings us back to the Watchmen TV series. No, it’s not an original story. It is undoubtedly an experiment, however. It’s an attempt to keep subscription channels alive for a few more years, a second hail-mary from HBO. The first one was The Sopranos, which put HBO on top for a decade and a half. This second hail-mary is admittedly weirder, stranger, and more desperate.

True, HBO is dipping its toes into the creative swamp of comic book adaptation. But, in terms of self-awareness, there is no better comic book to adapt. Watchmen is a comic book about comic books. It was written by Alan Moore, celebrated author and self-proclaimed wizard. It features a subplot of a shipwrecked pirate fashioning a raft together from corpses.

A Watchmen TV series will be an experiment to see if the wildly lucrative (if aesthetically distasteful) strategy of adapting and reproducing original stories works as well in TV as it does in film. At the same time, a Watchmen TV series will be utterly unique in TV, if not original. If HBO succeeds, this will keep subscription channels alive as viable sources of stories and entertainment for a little while longer in the increasingly streaming-based future.

But really, all this talk about what a Watchmen TV series might mean is just window dressing. The important thing is that we collectively cross our fingers and hope that the show doesn’t suck.

Matt