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HBO's 'Watchmen,' set in Tulsa, debuts this month: What you should know about the series that depicts the 1921 race massacre and Tulsa police in masks

HBO's 'Watchmen,' set in Tulsa, debuts this month: What you should know about the series that depicts the 1921 race massacre and Tulsa police in masks

From the 'Watchmen' coverage at series

Who will watch the “Watchmen” when it premieres on HBO this month?

The world will be watching this high-profile series from the network responsible for TV epics like “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld.”

Locals should have a keen interest in the show: It’s set in Tulsa in the present day, but with an alternate history.

For example, this is a world in which Robert Redford has been the U.S. President for more than 25 years and in which the Internet does not exist.

In addition, one of the show’s main characters is played by Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “O Brother Where Art Thou”).

“Watchmen” is a dark, twisty, complex mix of drama and fantasy, masked heroes and masked police officers. Here are a few things you should know about it ahead of its debut next week.

How to see “Watchmen”

“Watchmen” makes its premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, on HBO. New episodes will arrive each Sunday at the same time, running about one hour in length for its nine-episode season.

The source material

Released in 1986-87, “Watchmen” is still revered as one of the best and most important comic-book series. It was the creation of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons.

Telling a 1980s-set story with the U.S. approaching war with Russia and costumed heroes having been outlawed, it became the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s list of the “all-time 100 greatest novels.”

It deconstructed the comics’ world of superheroes as retired former heroes banded together to investigate when one of their own is murdered.

The graphic novel also operated in an alternate history of its own, with the presence of the heroes changing some historical events — like one of the heroes helping to win the Vietnam War for the U.S.

Yes, there was a movie based on the graphic novel

In 2009, Warner Bros. and filmmaker Zack Snyder (“300”) released “Watchmen,” an R-rated movie based on the 1980s source material that proved to be divisive among both audiences and critics. It was highly anticipated and had a $55 million opening weekend, but it became the rare movie that doesn’t even double its three-day opening, ending at $107 million — at a cost of more than $130 million.

How is HBO approaching a new twist in continuing the “Watchmen” story?

Damon Lindelof, a writer-producer with credits ranging from co-creating TV’s “Lost” as well as the HBO series “The Leftovers,” has said that he’s creating something new based on the source material, and it should be as creative, complex and unusual as those shows were.

“Set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws, (“Watchmen”) embraces the nostalgia of the original groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name, while attempting to break new ground of its own,” HBO said in its initial statement.

So what kind of story is Lindelof telling?

His new story takes place more than 30 years later in 2019 Tulsa, where police wear masks to conceal their identity as well as to protect their families from attacks by a terrorist group known as the Seventh Kavalry.

This is a sequel of sorts, and not a reboot, Lindelof has said, and it is a far more elaborate tale than a generic “superhero” series.

Who are the Seventh Kavalry?

These individuals wear masks with ink-blot designs, co-opting the look of Rorschach, one of the original “Watchmen” characters who was an anti-hero. The new group, also referred to as “7K,” has apparently rebuilt its organization into a militia and appears to be plotting some type of attack while espousing white-supremacist views.

How much does the setting in Tulsa play into the story?

Quite a bit, especially in the pilot episode on Oct. 20. The opening minutes are a depiction of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which plays strongly into the show’s primary theme of racial conflict. The musical “Oklahoma!” is a critical element in this episode’s storytelling. There is a Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage in this version of Tulsa. To say any more on these elements would be spoilers.

Alternate history and Greenwood

A key element of Lindelof’s story is that these people live in a world where “Victims of Racial Violence Legislation” was passed that furnished reparations. “It’s a lifetime tax exemption for victims of, and the direct descendants of, designated areas of racial injustice throughout America’s history, the most important of which, as it relates to our show, is the Tulsa massacre of 1921,” Lindelof told Entertainment Weekly.

How does the idea of reparations lead to cops wearing masks?

“That legislation had a ripple effect into another piece of legalization, DoPA, the Defense of Police Act, which allows police to hide their faces behind masks because they were being targeted by terrorist organizations for protecting the victims of the initial act,” Lindelof told Entertainment Weekly of a nation that remains divided by race relations.

Who is the main character?

Recent Academy Award-winner Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) portrays Angela Abar, a police detective who was shot by Kavalry members four years earlier, and who now tells people she is no longer an officer to protect her husband and two young children.

As a detective whose missions often call for violence, Angela dresses in all-black attire and is known as Sister Night, who could be described as an officer, a superhero, a vigilante — or all three. It’s complicated.

Who does Tim Blake Nelson play?

The Holland Hall graduate and veteran character actor portrays a Tulsa Police detective known as Looking Glass, a direct reference to the mirror-like mask that he wears. He works closely with Sister Night in tracking the Kavalry, and he shows his talents as a sort of interrogator-meets-behavioral psychologist. Not surprisingly, Nelson speaks with the best Oklahoma accent among cast members.

What are some other elements of the alternate history?

You have to wonder about the Tulsa economy and its connection to energy — in “Watchmen,” cars run only on electricity or fuel cells, and there are no fossil fuels. You’ll see landlines and pagers in use, but no cell phones, which are illegal. Robert Redford has been president for seven terms; before him, Richard Nixon was president for five terms (and his Watergate activities were never exposed).

Who else stars in the “Watchmen” series?

Beyond King and Nelson are Jeremy Irons (as a mystery character who lives in a castle and reminds of a former masked hero); Don Johnson (as the Tulsa Police chief); Jean Smart (as a former hero now working for the FBI to arrest masked vigilantes); Louis Gossett Jr. (as Will Reeves, a mysterious, 105-year-old Tulsan); and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, one of the stars of “Aquaman” who plays Angela’s husband, Cal.

How much “Watchmen” will there be?

Maybe just one season, according to Lindelof, who recently said that as the lead writer he focused on telling a self-contained story that would wrap us with no cliffhanger ending as if leading into a second season.

“We want to see how it’s received by you guys,” Lindelof said at last week’s New York Comic Con. “If the show comes out there and the conversation surrounding the show suggests you’re hungry for more, we’ll certainly take that into consideration. We want to deliver nine episodes that deliver a complete and total amazing story.”

Michael Smith





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Scene Writer

I write movie reviews and features, interviews Oklahoma performers and covers entertainment events for the Scene and Weekend sections of the Tulsa World. Phone: 918-581-8479

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