Who watches The Watchmen? Well a few people actually, with some reports saying that the opening episode had the strongest ratings for HBO since Westworld. However the ratings have been dropping quite dramatically for preceding episodes, so what on Mars can be going wrong with this stylish, well produced series?
Perhaps the answer lies with the approach that the show has taken, and the problems that such an approach can have. It is well documented that the show is a sequel to the Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and not the Zac Snyder film from 2009, so perhaps there is an argument that to truly enjoy the TV show, a working knowledge of the comic book, as opposed to the movie is required.
Now I am sure that you could probably enjoy HBO’s show without the history lesson, but many people may have felt that the opening four episodes are just too murky and obtuse to get through. The harrowing opening scene of the first episode seems to be introducing us to characters, however TV viewers may have been confused by the time jump from Tulsa 1921 to the modern day. The addition of police men that have to request permission to use their guns, and protect their identities with masks, may make some kind of weird sense for comic book fans, but many viewers may feel they have joined this show in the second series.
Now I’m all for mystery, but the problem with this show is that many of the mysteries will already be known to fans of the comic book, and not to new viewers, making this seem like a show designed to wink at the “real” fans, while confusing the casual viewer. As an audience, we are not all on the same page. This context continues throughout Watchmen, we have references in minute 12 of episode 1 of a Rorschach mask, and by minute 23 there is a rain of baby alien squids on one of the lead characters. Scenes of Regina Park, dressed as a Batwoman styled vigilante, in a room filled with masked policemen watching a terrorist video, that quotes directly from the original work, before chanting “tick tock”, might just make casual viewers cock their head.
The nods to Moore’s work continues to intersperse throughout the show, with too many to mention, but as fans delight in these Easter Eggs, the audience might be switching off. By the end of the episode, we see Jeremy Irons, naked, writing a play in what looks like Downton Abbey, and an Owl Ship. So by episode two, you can understand a few people opting out.
As this episode continues, we see The New Frontiersman newspaper make an appearance, and in such a way you are led to believe it’s important, and once again the comic book fans know why, everyone else has to Google it, and characters such as the new stand vendor are just delightful for fans but throw aways for the uninformed. By the 17th minute, we see moth inspired paparazzi, weird right? Not for Moore enthusiasts, as we know the reference. Lines of dialogue referring to “two minutes to midnight” are common place, and to be honest, I can see why viewers are leaving. As you watch this show, you know that what you are seeing is somehow steeped in a lore and mythos that perhaps too many people just can’t decipher.
By the time we get to the show within a show, American Hero Story, and realise that the TV show is doing what Moore did in the original story, a comic within a comic, viewers must have been wondering what the hell was going on? Is this TV show meant to be explaining something of great importance to us? If so, what? More completely bonkers scenes with Irons, in some strange dreamlike environment, adds to the puzzle box, although by now the comic fans will have figured out who Irons is. What do you think casual viewers thought of the play he stages with his cloned help? It was laugh out loud genius for fans, not so much for my mate Chris, who didn’t have a clue what was going on.
By episode 3 and the introduction of Laurie Blake, in an opening monologue again paying homage to the original story, and you can almost hear the ratings falling, let’s face it. If you are a TV show, you need ratings to survive, no matter how brilliantly scripted, acted and directed your show is, without an audience, you are doomed to be a cult classic. The nods continue to pile on thick and thin throughout the episode; with Rorschach’s Journal, Laurie’s past being referenced by an obvious fan boy, shout outs to Adrian Veidt and Ozymandias, the police strike of 77, Doctor Manhattan, it just keeps going, and so did the viewers. By episode 4, the lore is so deeply referenced that casual watchers are now probably gone, and the show is left with the likes of me.
A Watchmen obsessed fan of the original work, loving everything that we are seeing and revelling in the sequel to Watchmen, which is what this show really is, and revelling in understanding every tiny minutia and detail that normies just cant see. The problem is that this approach may just push the great viewing public so far away, that they may never come back. As far as TV executives go, well, you may have made a work of art, but you have displayed it in a gallery that has closed down a long time ago.