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How Much Homework Should an Audience Really Be Expected to Do?

HBO’s new big-budget ‘Watchmen’ show is aiming high — so high, in fact, it’s going to go right over the heads of anyone not intimately familiar with the source material

Picture it: You’ve had a long day at work, navigated rush hour, found something to eat for dinner, maybe had to listen to your partner’s bad day (not that you aren’t there for them, but…) and possibly experienced the drawn-out process of putting young ones to bed. Finally, a moment to sit on the couch and flip on the latest big budget event in HBO programming!

Then you’re told: Sorry, you didn’t do the assignment, this isn’t for you.

In an age where an ocean full of entertainment sea serpents are vying for your few post-responsibility/pre-exhaustion moments — between Hulu and Amazon and Criterion and Netflix and playing video games or simply falling down a well of complete Peter Gabriel-era Genesis concert films on YouTube, or even, God forbid, walking over to the bookshelf and picking up one of those classics you’ve been meaning to read (look at all that Balzac!) — it takes a lot of chutzpah for a television program to come into the scene warning audiences that if they come to it blind, they aren’t gonna get it.

And yet that’s what Damon Lindelof has effectively done with Watchmen, the latest spin on the much celebrated DC Comics property. In an “open letter” to fans of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons original, Lindelof, who is credited as series creator and writer or co-writer of the first announced six episodes, called the 1986-1987 limited comics run “sacred ground.” The new show, he stated, will not involve any retreads, recreations, reproductions or reboots.

This move was certainly designed to calm the nerves of protective fans, especially considering Lindelof’s fingerprints are on Star Trek Into Darkness, an entry in the geek-pop canon rightly loathed by its target demo. That 2014 film did exactly what Lindelof promises Watchmen will not do: take something beloved (in Darkness’ case, classic Trek film The Wrath of Khan) and do it again, only dumber. But what of the rest of his note, and indeed, the rest of the potential audience?

“Those original 12 issues are our Old Testament. When the New Testament came along it did not erase what came before it. … And so it will be with Watchmen,” Lindelof continued. Putting aside delusions of divinity, what he’s effectively saying here is, “Sure, you can watch my new show, but if you’re unfamiliar with Watchmen lore, you’re going to be left out.”

Watchmen, first published in 1986, is a brilliant and wildly successful comic. It was a reaction to the Reagan/Thatcher years, but also a keenly self-aware examination of superhero and pulp tropes that intelligently sinks its teeth into the “what if?” of masked vigilantes and superhuman abilities, placing them in a realistic context. There are also blocks of actual prose snuck in, as well as clever visual puns. Unlike most comics, which can be read on a short bus ride, Watchmen actually takes time — more importantly, it earns it. (Some like to call the collected 12 issues a “graphic novel,” but honestly, anyone who does is just asking to get slammed into a locker, sorry.) 

Still, most of the world hasn’t read it, at least not compared to a potential hit HBO series audience. It was made into a film, directed by Zack Snyder, in 2009, that did okay ($185 million worldwide on a $130 million budget, according to Box Office Mojo) but it’s hardly a touchstone of recent cinema, especially compared to other superhero movies or even other Zack Snyder projects. DC has also gone to the Watchmen well twice since, with a run of prequel comics in 2012 and a 2017 arc (Doomsday Clock) that introduced a parallel universe that simultaneously gave closure to and muddied-up previous storylines. (Whither DC’s Crisis of Infinite Crossovers?)

The point being that Watchmen is a big deal to a lot of comic book people, but not a lot of people in the real world. And unlike Game of Thrones, which was also based on a pre-existing property with enthusiastic fans, that HBO series was, at least for years, a fairly typical adaptation. With Watchmen, any fan who knows the mythos watching along with someone who’s new will be tempted to grab that remote, hit pause and explain why what just happened is important, probably every few minutes.

Even though I’ve read Watchmen (and seen the movie) I find the whole scenario annoying. It’s all in my head, but do I need a refresher? Do I need to do homework? Why can’t there be a TV show you can just watch without having Wikipedia open anymore? You’d think that I, someone who writes about movies and television for a living, would want to encourage this sort of close read, but honestly, just like you, 2019 has left me feeling like my head’s about to burst.

 I spoke to a few of my colleagues about this and several agree. Esther Zuckerman at Thrillist calls herself a “a read-the-book-before-you-see-the-movie type of gal,” but also admits, “Who has the time!?” Then she adds, “I’m a Type-A person who always loved doing homework, but I wonder if I should lay off and experience a film/TV show just as a film/TV show?”

I feel this deeply. There’s a strand of DNA floating out there of people — like me — who are forever terrified of not being in on the joke. This manifests itself in an inability to enjoy a movie without the full context. And this is the part of the article where I admit, to my great shame, that I have still yet to see last year’s A Star Is Born because I hadn’t yet seen all of the previous ones. My unfamiliarity with Janet Gaynor’s 1937 version prevented me from watching Bradley Cooper whizz on himself. Yes, I know, this isn’t normal. I’ve got problems.

New York Magazine’s Bilge Ebiri is less cracked than I, but makes up for it with a healthy dose of cynicism. “I love to do that kind of homework,” he tells me, “but when it feels mandatory, it’s bogus and annoying.” He adds, “It feels less like someone wanting to make sure you familiarize yourself with important concepts, and more like someone trying to just get you in the tank for their product before you’ve even consumed it. Or even worse, make more money for their corporate overlords, who presumably are the ones putting out, say, the comic book in question.”

That last part is so obvious it has to be true, but you can say that about any adaptation. His idea of rooking audiences into getting emotionally invested in a series before it’s even begun, however, is a bit of deviousness that would delight even Adrian Veidt. After all, there is no greater metric for success for a first season of television than the announcement of a second season. If you get viewers to put in the work, confirmation bias is likely to get them singing its praises far more loudly than just any ol’ show.

Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya is far more forgiving. “Most adaptations are bad — or at least worse than their source material — so I personally love what Watchmen is doing,” she tells me. “Audiences will look up more info, or read the comic if they want to. I vaaaastly prefer this method to the endless remaking and adapting.”

I wish I could be like these hypothetical viewers. When will a pink squid from outer space come, blast me into submission and get me to chill? In the meantime, I’m going to give Watchmen the benefit of the doubt — I just hope that The Lindelof Method (which is coming to CBS All Access in spring) is the exception, not the rule.