HBO presented a panel for Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series for the Television Critics Association. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book was a 1985 period piece, set in an alternate present in a world that had known actual superheroes for decades. Lindelof is following up on the comic book – this is what 2019 looks like in the decades after Watchmen.
Lindelof shared a few details of the new present day setting of his Watchmen. Find out who followed Richard Nixon as President of the United States, what no longer exists in Watchmen’s 2019, and what else has changed. Watchmen premieres this fall on HBO.
A Former Actor Still Became President
This alternate history’s Richard Nixon had a five term presidency, which left no room for Ronald Reagan to be elected President in 1980. However, former actor still became President of the United States in this world, but one from the opposite end of the aisle.
“Robert Redford is the president of the United States and has been the President in the world of the show since the early ‘90s since they’ve abolished term limits,” Lindelof said. “We’re interested in exploring what would happen if a very well-intentioned liberal white man was President for way too long. Nixon was still president in ‘85. He remained president, was re-elected in ’88. He died in office. Gerald Ford became President as Nixon’s Vice President and then was defeated in ’92 by Robert Redford.”
That’s actually a rather poignant take on alternate history. A conservative celebrity is currently in power, and an unhappy populace might fantasize about how the country should be run. Lindelof is taking the position that a beloved celebrity with liberal politics could still get the country into just as bad a place. For example, there is still volatile racial violence.
“Personally speaking as a white man, the idea that systemically our country would ever come to a place where there wasn’t an incredible amount of anger, pushback and vitriol about balancing the power scale between people of color and white people would be ridiculous,” Lindelof said. “Nobody would ever swallow that. We’re trying to reflect where well-intentioned white people are trying to make things better and we’re now dropping the audience into the unintended consequences of that intentionality.”
There’s No Internet in Watchmen
Lindelof says we’ll recognize the 2019 of Watchmen as similar to our own. The biggest difference will be nobody is spending time online, and nobody has smart phones.
“We’ve created a world that does not have an internet,” Lindelof said. “People do not have smart phones. Even though it’s set in 2019, the Redford administration saw the writing on the wall and stepped in to make sure we could not troll each other.”
Honestly, fictional President Redford may have been right. We’ve seen toxic fandom proliferate online. Lindelof admitted that being on Twitter brought out his meanest qualities.
“As a parent of a 12-year-old, the thing we talk about most amongst our peers is what affect is social media and screens having on our culture,” Lindelof said. “That worry is embedded deeply in the thematics of the show.”
The Comic is Canon
Lindelof decided to make a sequel to Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen rather than retell the comic. Though he’s carving a new path, Lindelof asserts that everything that happened in the comic happened in the backstory of the show.
“We’re not going to mess with it,” Lindelof said. “It’s canon. We re-explore the past but it’s canon. [That’s] one of the rules that we had as storytellers, writers. Even once we got into production, everything that happened in those 12 issues could not be messed with. We were married to it so there’s no rebooting that.”
Race is the Political Issue of Watchmen
The original comic books were dealing with the Cold War, which was the hot button political issue through the ‘80s. The Cold War ended decades ago, but the world, and especially America, are still dealing with political crises. Lindelof decided that Watchmen could comment on modern day racial politics. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is a focus of the series.
“Four or five years ago, I first read The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Lindelof said. “That was the first time I heard about Black Wall Street, Tulsa in 1921 and was ashamed and confused I’d never heard about it before. Then I bought and read The Burning. That was the beginning of my education. When I started thinking about what Watchmen was going to be, in the original source material, the book was highly political. It was about what was happening in American culture at the time, even though presented by two British artists. What in 2019 is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and United States? It felt it was undeniably race and policing in America.”
In the pilot, white supremacists attack the police. That’s an inverse of the problem we’re facing in the real world, in which police violence is disproportionately directed at people of color. Lindelof is not pulling a The Confederate here though. He’s not suggesting the roles of race are reversed, and he promises the dynamics of Watchmen will be explored further in subsequent episodes.
“That idea started to graft itself into the Watchmen universe and needed to be presented in a responsible way,” Lindelof said. “My hope is over the course of the entire season, the nine episodes we’ve completed, you’ll have a much better sense of that. I think those contradictions were things we were very aware of in storytelling and tried to square to the best of our ability. There are no easy answers. There are no grandiose solutions. In a traditional superhero movie, the bad guys are fighting aliens. When they beat the aliens, the aliens go back to their planet and everybody wins. There’s no defeating white supremacy. It felt like a pretty formidable foe.”
And there are still problems with law enforcement in Watchmen, not the least of which is that the cops now wear masks.
“Are the police presented in a heroic light, the heroes of this story?” Lindelof said. “The answer is most certainly no. Watchmen is not interested in talking about who the heroes, villains, good guys and bad guys are. It’s an examination of institutions and politics.”
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