There are some people who will go to great lengths to convince others that awards don’t matter, that the system is rigged, and that exceptional work too often goes unrecognized by major awards bodies. Those people aren’t wrong. But that doesn’t make them right.
It’s easy to be cynical in the face of the big Hollywood machine, but in the aftermath of an Emmy Awards season featuring several underdogs toppling competitors that seemed like surefire winners (congrats again, “Fleabag”), it feels as though we’re entering a new age of television accolades. Perhaps an unforeseen byproduct of Peak TV is the sheer necessity of word-of-mouth. The TV that triumphs is the TV that critics and audiences feel most strongly about, advocating at every turn in an attempt to share that brilliance with everyone and anyone who’ll listen.
Of course, coming from a premium cable behemoth with a long history of prestige dramas and helmed by one of the medium’s most beloved creators isn’t typically what a person imagines when it comes to a TV underdog, but in reality, “Watchmen” has a lot going against it, particularly with regards to converting buzz into meaningful traction in the awards space.
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As a series adapted from and inspired by the most prestigious graphic novel of all time, “Watchmen” remains in a genre long-overlooked by awards bodies. It was just a few years ago that AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” at the time still new and novel — and watched by some 13 million viewers per week — saw this same conversation bandied about. What would it take for a populist “comic book” show to break through somewhere like the Golden Globes or Emmys?
Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
In all fairness, “The Walking Dead” was never going to be that show. For one, there were altogether too many zombies and two, well, mostly the zombie thing. But at every level “Watchmen” is a completely different beast. Far from a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario, the series instead presents a pre-apocalyptic nightmare, delving into territory even more treacherous than zombies: The United States’ history of racism and violence.
Like the Cold War and nuclear arms race in Alan Moore’s graphic novel before it, the series is intent on actively engaging with the on the most pressing issues threatening American democracy as we know it. And that makes people uncomfortable.
It’s this commitment to not only exploring, but successfully illuminating, difficult social issues that allows “Watchmen” to transcend its genre in ways that other shows have not. Yes, the series is fun. Yes, it looks fantastic. Yes, it drives pop culture conversations about easter eggs and big blue vibrators. But more importantly, it’s driving socio-political conversations. It’s grappling with the knowledge that heroes and villains wear masks in equal measure, and that good vs. evil is not a zero sum game.
But none of this would matter if the show wasn’t any good. And it’s not good. It’s brilliant.
A self-professed “fanboy” of the source material, Damon Lindelof took the wisest route in adapting beloved IP, leaving the bulk of the original story wholly untouched and choosing instead to craft his own tale in its wake.
Even smarter than that, however, was the showrunner’s choice to surround himself with people who could bring clarity and nuance to the world of “Watchmen” that he himself lacked. By surrounding himself in the writer’s room primarily with women and/or people of color, Lindelof found a way to de-emphasize his own voice in a story which least needed the insight of a white dude, even as the current reality of TV production dictates that only a hyper-successful white guy would ever have been given license to build a “Watchmen” world of their own.
The rest of “Watchmen” is built upon this careful foundation, each addition lending itself to the overall strength and stability of the show. From its stellar direction — Nicole Kassell and Stephen Williams both directed multiple episodes of the nine-episode season — to its incomparable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the series builds out an entire universe in which to lose yourself in.
It’s in this universe that some of acting’s finest talents are set loose and allowed the room to develop performances among the best of what television has to offer. As protagonist Angela Abar, Regina King does what she does best (kicking-ass) while channeling a lifetime of pain, anguish, and anger. She is the perfect avatar for 2019.
King is not alone in her magnificence, though, matched step-for-step by Jean Smart, whose depiction of retired/reformed superhero Laurie Blake aches of fatigue and resignation. She has no nostalgia for the past and no illusions about the future, all of which resonates in every deadpan punchline Smart delivers. She, too, is a perfect avatar for 2019.
Mark Hill / HBO
Which is to say nothing of Jeremy Irons or Tim Blake Nelson or Louis Gossett Jr. or Yahya Abdul-Mateen II or the rest of the show’s expansive and incredible cast. It’s a cavalcade of stars performing in what is undoubtedly one of the best show’s of the year, and it’s worthy of any and every prize it can get.
The trouble with trophies, especially as they pertain to television, is the perceived divide between what audiences enjoy and what we think of as awards-worthy content. It’s time to obliterate that misconception for good. A show can be important and fun, it can be thrilling and contemplative, it can be challenging and not take itself too seriously. TV worthy of the highest honors Hollywood can bestow can be any or none of those things.
But “Watchmen” is all of them.