HBO’s marquee Sunday night drama Watchmen is definitely the most ambitious show on TV right now. It’s creative, daring, confident, enigmatic, well-made, and beautifully acted. It both is and is not a superhero show, which feels like exactly the right balance to strike at this moment of comic-book-IP hegemony. Set in a parallel reality, inside the alternative American history dreamed up by the original Watchmen comic books, Damon Lindelof’s show manages to feel utterly of our moment, taking on American race relations and trauma in surprising ways. All of this is why it gives me no pleasure to admit that I’m slightly dreading the next episode.
I do understand that I could just not watch. After all, there’s so much TV to try these days that not watching something has never been easier. But the opposite is true too: The sheer amount of TV has kept me turning to Watchmen on Sunday nights with an air of attention—even longing. What I would give for a little consensus, for the collective pleasure of appointment viewing, and the subsequent watercooler (or Slack channel) recaps. Of course, this show is being somewhat exhaustively recapped, and the critics I like, and my pop-culture podcasts of choice, keep heaping praise on it week after week. Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) is a major talent, a TV auteur, and this is the biggest swing of his big-swing career. I am here for big swings. I salute ambition.
Not a big comic book person, I nevertheless read Watchmen once upon a time, and the show evokes that mid-’80s artifact (hailed by many as a masterpiece) in evocative, non-slavish ways. Its action begins 34 years after the events of the comics, in an America in which—among many other things—Robert Redford is president and white supremacist groups have turned violent in the wake of Redford’s policy of reparations. The show bravely plunges you into a state of confusion: Five hour-long episodes in, I can’t tell you exactly why mini squids fall like rain, or why Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons, scenery-chewing like a boss) is confined to his country estate/prison/space moon. I sort of understand why cops, like the one played by Regina King, hide their faces behind masks, but I have no idea who that billionaire lady was giving out babies week before last. And last week’s bottle episode that centered on Tim Blake Nelson’s character Looking Glass almost explained why a giant squid from another dimension fell on New York in the ’80s. Watchmen’s mysteriousness is its signature. A state of confusion keeps you invested. I am invested. I’m working hard to puzzle this stuff out. Am I enjoying myself? Not really!
Not enjoying TV feels like a modern condition. Enjoyment used to be the small screen’s stock-in-trade. Why else tune in to the likes of Friends or The Office or 30 Rock (or Fraiser or L.A. Law or Seinfeld), if not for a pleasurable dopamine blast? Ditto the white-knuckle tick-tock of Breaking Bad, and the retro-glam workplace dramatics of Mad Men. Yes, there has always been bad TV. But has there ever been so much prestige-y, high-brow, well-made TV which is not that…enjoyable? Impressive as The Crown is, I doubt its fans are having a blast with that Aberfan mining disaster episode. Much as I admired a slew of new documentaries on the streaming services, not one of them will give you a delightful night in. Are you super jazzed about The Mandalorian? Have you tried basically anything on Apple+?
Ho hum. Complaining about the embarrassment of riches that is peak TV can feel churlish. (And one can always stream an Oscar contender instead.) So what if there isn’t a consensus show right now? The fact is, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. Not long ago there was Succession, which was fun, week after week, and felt like something close to consensus viewing. Still, as I doggedly watch Watchmen, I’m struggling to recall what it was like to simply enjoy a popular show along with the rest of America—to sink in to a comedy or serialized drama and hope the episode never ends. Perhaps I need to do what my wife did recently and start The Office over from the beginning. But I want something new! And I don’t like baking competitions, sorry. So that leaves me with options like Watchmen: a prestige show that seems designed not so much to be enjoyed as to be impressed by. And I am impressed. Which is why I’ll be right there as usual on Sunday. Maybe the squid thing will finally make sense.
Originally Appeared on Vogue