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Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen comic series is often treated as a disillusioned parable with heroes as repugnant as its criminals, but many readers often gloss over the sardonic and slightly deadpan humor bubbling at the edges. In tackling HBO's unique adaptation, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof had tons of storytelling ground to cover, and from the pilot forward, it's clear how important it was to him and the creative team to keep the humor element intact.
Watchmen executive producer and episode director Nicole Kassell thinks embracing humor within the tonal structure was a necessary piece of the puzzle. Speaking with CinemaBlend ahead of Watchmen's HBO premiere, here's Kassell's take on the show's levity, and how heavily Watchmen influenced Damon Lindelof's own talents.
I'd say it was essential. I think tone is something that Damon is a master of, and one of the treats of reading Watchmen – because I read it after I had read his pilot – and once I went and really started studying the book, having read everything he wrote on The Leftovers, I discovered [how big a fan Damon is]. It's obvious to all, and he's always said he's grown up on comics, but I truly saw the DNA of his approach to writing and structure. So the tone is inherent to Damon's work. One thing I appreciate in this Watchmen is that it brought out, I'd say, a little more of the comedy. Or maybe the comedy is in the source, but when I read it alone, and I tend towards the dark, I just felt the anxiety. I really did. I read it over a weekend, and it's already a very anxious time in our climate, and I just remember feeling so uncomfortable. And then reading the pilot, [there was] more overt comic relief in the remix that Damon's created.
For both modern readers and for those who picked up the comics at the time of their '80s publication, Watchmen definitely isn't the most obviously amusing work of fiction; especially when one is reading in a vacuum without additional context. When one goes back over it after knowing how things get resolved, however, there are countless moments when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' cheeky senses of humor shine through.
Watchmen clearly isn't sitcom material, but its U.K. creators knew how to bring the anarchic fun, often through the structure of the story itself. For me, Adrien Veidt's arc becomes almost farcical with its tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing, and to say nothing of Rorschach's overall nihilism, his journal entries were rife with observational oddities that read like reverse-Seinfeldian sentiments. Dan and Laurie's burgeoning relationship is another area for spirited wordplay and juxtaposition.
While Zack Snyder brought some of that fun out in his big screen feature, Damon Lindelof had to work with a completely different set of tools for HBO's Watchmen, both in taking the story to live-action and in introducing a mostly original set of characters and situations. Thankfully for everyone, Watchmen's stellar cast adds all the extra performative dimensions that can't exist on the page, with actors like Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson and Don Johnson adding energetic sparks to every line. Cheers to realistic, irony-laced nuance like this over hokey one-liners any day.
Nicole Kassell had her work cut out for her, too, since the pilot episode kicks off with an inciting incident within Watchmen's alternate world, the Tulsa race massacre. Filmed with the intensity of Saving Private Ryan's epic opening, Watchmen plunges viewers headfirst into the dark before revealing a light in the distance. Though that light may be hard to see at times over the course of the show's run, relief is always nearby.
During my talk with Nicole Kassell – who is also responsible for helming very memorable episodes of The Leftovers, Rectify, Westworld and more – I asked her what she hopes Watchmen's biggest comic book fans will be struck by. In her words:
I'd say, if nothing else, that it's a truly original piece that captures the spirit of the source, and it's both weird and original, and dark and cynical.
Comic book fans can be among the most vocal of any fandom, and Watchmen is widely viewed as the medium's holy grail, so it's probably safe to expect strong sentiments coming out one way or another. Optimism should be ever-present though, since Watchmen is currently sitting pretty at 93% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with over 40 reviews accounted for.
Whether or not Watchmen will last longer than one season is up to audiences at this point, since Damon Lindelof has implied the show was built for a limited run, with ways to keep things going if the hunger for more is there. However it goes, just be sure to give it a shot by tuning into Season 1 on Sunday nights on HBO, with the premiere going down on October 20.