Cast: Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), Jeremy Irons (“Reversal of Fortune”), Don Johnson (“Miami Vice”), Jean Smart (“Designing Women”), Louis Gossett Jr. (“An Officer and a Gentleman”), Frances Fisher (“Titanic”), James Wolk (“Zoo”)
Airs: The series premieres Sunday on HBO.
The premise: Set in the same universe as the “Watchmen” graphic novel and film, this nine-episode series is part of an alternate timeline where masked vigilantes were once viewed as the saviors of humanity but are now treated as outlaws. The show takes place after the events of the “Watchmen” movie, which was set in 1985. In this continuation, taking place in the present, the U.S. is under attack. A domestic terrorist group will destroy anyone who opposes them, including the police. “Watchmen” is executive produced by Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”).
Highs: The alternative Earth in “Watchmen” is a dangerous, weird and fascinating place. In this universe, Richard Nixon was a popular five-term president succeeded by Robert Redford. Smartphones and the internet don’t exist, and masked vigilantes roam the streets and are regarded as superheroes. Or at least they used to be.
After a nuclear war was barely averted in 1985, a crisis detailed in the “Watchmen” film, regular people without abilities decided it was time to take their future into their own hands and not rely on those with special skills. Unchecked vigilantism was abolished and the world was peaceful, but of course it wouldn’t last. Flash forward 34 years and the country has regressed, as illustrated by the rise of a white supremacist terrorist organization known as the Seventh Kalvary.
Tulsa, Okla., is where a majority of the action in “Watchmen” takes place. It’s the home of Angela Abar (Regina King), a former cop turned baker. The city is also home to one of the more devastating and racially violent moments in American history — the 1921 Tulsa race riot. This tragedy is reenacted in graphic detail and is used to connect the story lines of Abar, who secretly works for the police as the vigilante Sister Night, and the rise of the Seventh Kalvary.
Told through a complex and riveting mystery, a murder investigation is at the center of “Watchmen’s” first season. It’s up to Angela Abar/Sister Night to do the unraveling. King balances her divergent roles as mother, wife, friend and vigilante with a mix of grace, sincere affection and ferocity. The Oscar winner is at the top of her game.
King shines in “Watchmen,” but she has plenty of help, most notably from Jean Smart. Now an FBI agent and going by the name Laurie Blake, Smart plays the older version of Silk Spectre, a vigilante played by Malin Akerman in the 2009 film. Smart, who arrives in episode three, adds much-needed levity. While King carries the series, once the character of Laurie Blake shows up, “Watchmen” truly starts to find its footing.
Lows: If you’re unfamiliar with the mythology of “Watchmen,” chances are you’re going to be confused during the pilot episode. As someone who has read the comics and seen the movie, even I had to pay close attention to what was going on and look for clues as to how this series was a part of the “Watchmen” past, yet told its own story.
With unfamiliar-looking superheroes, plenty of graphic violence and the liberal use of allegory, there will be some who will wonder what the heck is going on. “Watchmen” might not have the broad appeal of other HBO programs set in unique worlds, such as “Game of Thrones” or “Westworld.”
Grade: (A-): After an unevenly paced pilot episode, I wasn’t sure what to make of this series. But after episode two, I was all in, devouring the six episodes I had access to. Intriguing and with an uncommon style, I quickly became hooked. “Watchmen” is HBO’s next big thing.
Gazette TV critic Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.