On the Fourth of July, my wife and I, like so many homebound Americans, turned to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece as a passive celebration of a country that’s troubled history was built on the bloodied backs of immigrants — both willing and unwilling.
It was fine.
The filmed version of the Broadway production of “Hamilton,” then new to Disney+, was brilliant at capturing the magic of the stage show, as vibrant and hopeful as it ever was. It wasn’t that “Hamilton” had changed. It was that everything else had.
“Hamilton” is a product of its time, lovingly crafted during the halcyon days of the Obama Administration and breaking out at a time when revolution demanded as much participation as wearing a hat (or wearing a different hat.)
2016 was for hats. 2020 is for masks.
Art has always been about humanity’s attempt to synthesize its history and make sense of its future, and television is no exception. Limited series have long been where creators use the horrors of real life as a foundation for the stories they choose to tell, whether the subject matter is the Holocaust (“Anne Frank: The Whole Story”), World War II (“Band of Brothers”), or the AIDS crisis (“Angels in America”), to name just a few.
Just last year saw a furious Emmy race for Outstanding Limited Series between “Chernobyl” and “When They See Us,” one of which explored the systemic failures and transgressions in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster and the other which examined a miscarriage of justice which cost five innocent young men years of their lives. Each of them were incisive indictments of wrongdoing, but the lines between then and now were stark. Surely, we would know better, do better, today if we had the chance. Right?
It’s the same feeling we get when delving into several limited series nominated for this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards. Watching FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America” showed us the triumphs and failures of second wave feminism, as illustrated by the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment while Netflix’s “Unbelievable” illuminated the shortcomings of a criminal justice system and society that fails sexual assault victims at nearly every turn.
But it wasn’t “Mrs. America” or “Unbelievable” that haunted me as I attempted to give myself over to a version of American history full of lyrical rapscallions and a mean old king. It wasn’t “Chernobyl” or “When They See Us” or even “American Crime Story.”
2016 was for “Hamilton.” 2020 is for “Watchmen.”
After garnering 26 Emmy nominations, it’s easy to look back on “Watchmen” and assume it was always a sure thing. But despite the full support of HBO and the oversight of “Watchmen” superfan and TV visionary Damon Lindelof, there was every possibility, nay, likelihood, that the project would be a colossal failure.
For one, the endeavor, like so many projects before it, was disavowed by the eponymous comic book’s co-creator Alan Moore, who has repeatedly refused to have his name attached to any filmed adaptation of “Watchmen.” Further, the series had been in the works at HBO since 2015, at which point the network was in talks with Zack Snyder, who helmed the deeply controversial 2009 film adaptation of the comic.
And yet Snyder’s contentious movie might actually have laid the groundwork for a more roundly celebrated take on the material. Deemed a failure by many, the big-budget comic book expectations that accompanied the film coupled with the director’s slavish adherence to the source material left the pump primed for a more cerebral take, better suited for the auspices of prestige TV. The series also did itself a huge favor by subverting and liberating itself from its origins by offering up a new chapter of the “Watchmen” canon, or “remix” to use Lindelof’s own words, an alternate history of the U.S. set 34 years after the events in the comic created by Moore and Dave Gibbons.
But Lindelof’s creation did more than just remix “Watchmen” for a new era. It took the bloody, brutal, too-often marginalized horrors of American history and married them to a recognizable, if fictionalized, present — and the result was not merely great storytelling, it was prescience.
What makes “Watchmen” so immediate is its eerie alignment with the moment that we’re collectively living through. It’s a departure from those limited series in which we watch the unpleasantness of our shared histories unfold, leaving us to assure ourselves that, with the benefit of hindsight, we’re now much better off.
It’s a series we watched to see those moments from our past left untaught or unacknowledged made manifest, only to have their lessons reinforced in real time as we witnessed similar atrocities unfold before our very eyes, on our streets, on the news, and in our homes.
But this is not a matter of timeliness.
When Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was announced in early 2016, it was merely a timely take on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, uncomfortably relevant in the 30-some years since its publication, but still a far cry from anything resembling lived experience. By the time the series finished production on its first season, before a single episode had aired, it was burdened with expectations. It needed to be a mirror to the times.
Timeliness is an accident that, while powerful, shackles you with a responsibility to be more than a story well-told. You must be a suitable representative of the moment in which you exist. You have to be a mirror.
But “Watchmen” didn’t have to be a mirror. Instead, it could be a window.
The magic of “Watchmen” comes in the fact that its narrative, as delivered in the waning months of 2019, ended up in conversation with the year to follow in completely unprecedented ways.
Pretend you’re in one of those fancy Hollywood pitch meetings and are selling the suits on your story.
It starts, believe it or not, with the flu.
From there, you tell the execs about a global pandemic that would strike millions, ravaging the world for months on end while scientists tirelessly sought out a vaccine. While many countries would eventually formulate a system to protect and defend its citizens from the viral plague, one country would refuse to yield to scientific oversight, its hubris dooming hundreds of thousands of its citizens to death. The decisions, made by men some would call megalomaniacs and other would call swindlers, would usher in lasting economic destruction and widespread unemployment.
And then, there’s a murder.
A Black man is killed by police. He begs for his life as officers of the law ignore him. It is all on tape. The global populace, beaten down by existential threats, unemployed, angry, take to the streets in protest of systemic racism and institutionalized violence. They demonstrate against these continued gross violations of human rights and the use of outsized force by law enforcement. In return, they are met with gross violations of human rights and use of outsized force — including deployment of tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and worse — by law enforcement and, in some cases, military forces deployed to defend public property, as opposed to the public they are sworn to defend. The result is would-be war zones across the country and around the world. In the streets, people on both sides wear masks.
Also, it’s only July and there’s an election on the horizon.
It would be a hard sell.
The history of this moment is unfathomable, even as we live through it. “Watchmen,” then, functioned as a gift given to us before we realized we needed it. As we watched the adventures of Angela Abar (Regina King) as she explored the untapped depths of racial tensions within her work as a Tulsa police officer, her life as a descendent of victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, and her legacy as a masked vigilante, we were allowed a respectable distance from our own shared, bloody history. That the story was littered with squids and superheroes and demigods and, well, eggs, made it all the more palatable. And, somehow, it all made so much more sense than the reality we’re trapped in that beggars belief.
In many ways, this is Lindelof’s gift as a storyteller. In “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” and again with “Watchmen,” he creates hazy dreamstates that look like real life, but tweaked 15 degrees. His landscapes are littered with magical realism that blurs the line between what exists and what might be. What is “The Leftovers,” a series where 2% of the world’s population disappears without a trace, really, but a treatise on how to live in the aftermath of an unimaginable plague, tortured by the idea that your life was spared for a reason (or, worse yet, for no reason at all)?
We are lucky to have “Watchmen” to accompany us through this moment. Its clear-eyed view of American history and, more importantly, American present, is a window into the world too often overlooked by those of us with privilege. It’s a realization that Lindelof clearly had of his own accord in the project’s creation. As a successful white man with a perhaps disproportionate amount of sway within the industry, he prioritized surrounding himself with an expansive and diverse assortment of creative collaborators, including, of course King, but also writers Cord Jefferson and Christal Henry, as well as director Stephen Williams, among others, many of whom knew less about the comic book origins, but much, much more about the realities of the world they were reflecting.
With all of that in mind, with the weight of reality and American history weighing so heavily on our hearts each and every day of 2020, it’s exhilarating to know that the Television Academy, like the Peabody Awards before them, recognize the importance of celebrating “Watchmen” as it exists in this moment. The Emmys often have a slightly more lackadaisical way about them, a misbegotten confidence that if they don’t recognize a series one year, there will surely be another opportunity coming in a year or two.
Mark Hill / HBO
But for “Watchmen,” there is no time to waste. It is, of course, a limited series and no matter how much you might beg HBO or HBO might beg Lindelof (not unlike the desperation “Fleabag” fans faced last year at the prospect that the show’s second season would be its last) there is no ill-advised, “Big Little Lies”-esque revisitation in the works.
The moment to celebrate the brilliance of “Watchmen” is now. The chance to celebrate an artistic offering which works flawlessly as both a commercial and critical success, as well as serving as a searing critique of the racist foundation of much of American society and an unflinching look at the failures of the police state. It has not been overpraised. It’s exactly as good, exactly as important, as you suspect it is.
Somehow, someway, “Watchmen” is about this exact moment in time. But it’s about more than that. To borrow lyrics from “Hamilton,” “This is not a moment, it’s the movement.” Now is the time to laud “Watchmen,” yes. But it’s also the time to rise up, put on our masks, and fight.