I’m reserving formal judgment on Watchmen, a show I’ve strongly disliked thus far through three episodes. I recognize it’s still revealing layers of its larger structure one painfully obvious allusion at a time, in such a way that a future episode will probably make everything snap together and inspire 500,000 blog posts headlined “Let’s talk about THAT moment in this week’s Watchmen.” Maybe this will make me love it. Mostly I don’t want to look like a snarky jerk for identifying some element as “dumb as hell” when, because the greater mystery has not filled in, it may be “actually meaningful”... though because I did watch Lost, I should hopefully know better.
But through the show’s launch, I’ve been fascinated by a repeated refrain in the press cycle: showrunner Damon Lindelof’s insistence that he is wracked with great shame and/or humiliation for deigning to adapt Watchmen in the first place.
Here are some selected quotes from interviews that have appeared over the last few weeks:
“I ask my therapist that question on a weekly basis now. ‘Why, why Watchmen?’” (Entertainment Weekly)
“I’ve shifted from, ‘I feel compelled to do this, and I’m going to do everything I can to do it right’ at the start, to a point of, ‘This was the hugest mistake that I’ve ever made in my life. I was a fool to have done it, and more important, it was irresponsible for me to have done it. I should have stayed in my lane. This is not my story to tell.’” (Rolling Stone)
“I did not enjoy any of this. That’s the price that I paid. Psychological professionals would probably suggest that I emotionally created the curse as a way of creating balance for the immorality.” (Vulture, after discussing how he thinks Watchmen creator Alan Moore put a curse on him)
“I don’t like using the word depressed because I know people who are really depressed. That feeling of not wanting to get out of bed and despair and hopelessness — I had all those feelings, but they were attached very specifically to the show. What I was saying to my collaborators on a fairly constant basis was, ‘This was a huge mistake. I never should have done this. Why did I do this? I can’t quit, I have to see it through, but this was a huge mistake.’” (also Vulture)
“I mean, I’ve done a lot of therapy to get to the place where I can say, ‘I want to generate strong feelings, and I may not have control over what those strong feelings are.’” (The New York Times)
It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, creative overconfidence has ruined more albums, books, TV shows, films, video games, and podcasts than can be succinctly recapped here, so his admitted self-doubt is a nice change of pace. On the other… Damon, what’s up, man? Why are you treating the journalists of America like your second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth therapists?
Lindelof’s guilt arises from the inherent conditions of Watchmen’s existence. The show is an imagined sequel to the original comic book, published between 1986 and 1987, by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Infamously, Moore and Gibbons signed away their creative rights to the original work, as they didn’t foresee its canonization as one of the greatest comic books of all-time. Watchmen has since generated millions of dollars, and Moore has been repeatedly critical of DC’s continued exploration (though some might say cannibalization) of the property, in the form of filmed adaptations, comic book sequels, and endless new printed editions of the original.
The Watchmen comic is a sacred text to Lindelof, and knowing Moore (who also doubles as the most acclaimed comic book author of all-time) explicitly disapproves can’t be easy. “I received a communication back from Alan, in which he made it clear — and I want to respect this — that he didn’t want his name to be used in any way,” Lindelof told Vulture. Hence all of the guilt: Lindelof knows there’s a very good argument against his decision to adapt Watchmen in the first place, which conflicts with his natural urge as a showrunner (though some might say a capitalist) to produce a zeitgeist-grabbing work. In the same Vulture interview, he talked about admiring people who refuse to watch the show on principle.
All of this amounts to a crafty bit of virtue signaling: Lindelof is so eager to acknowledge the reasons why this show might be conceptually irredeemable that he ends up defanging the critiques. It’s very clear he’s been thinking about this for years. The Vulture article opens up with the writer, Abe Riesman, discussing how Lindelof had reached out to him months ago to gauge whether or not taking on the adaptation was a good idea, when it was still in the planning stage. “I told him it was probably unethical, but that if he went through with it, there were ways he could make it interesting,” Riesman writes, advice that Lindelof apparently took to heart.
A common critique of Lindelof’s writing is his allergy to meaningful resolution. Lost famously answered all of its labyrinthine mysteries with “the real smoke monster was the friends we made along the way.” The Leftovers never explained its Rapture-like event. That Watchmen will always exist alongside the question of “did we make the right decision” is perhaps creative catnip, given how it’s informed his previous work; he will never know, just as his viewers rarely have.
If Lindelof is seeking absolution from the people most well-equipped to criticize him, I’d like to offer a different conclusion: If he loves the original comic so much, then adapting it was indeed a bad idea. Lindelof is in no position to authoritatively plot out a sequel, given that he isn’t the original creator, and his guess has the awkward feel of fanfiction — it’s so faithful to literally imagining “what would the world of Watchmen be 30 years later” that it comes off like a very serious parody. Watchmen may be a sacred text, but it’s also literally a finite narrative imagined by two people, one of whom has been painfully clear that all extensions are creatively bankrupt. (The artist Dave Gibbons, who was incalculably important to the comic but also had objectively less to do with its gestation than Moore, has given the HBO show his blessing; Lindelof says without it, he wouldn’t have proceeded.)
The guilty feeling in his stomach when he thinks about the circumstances behind the show’s existence? That isn’t something to be massaged out by a therapist — it’s a very reasonable response, given that Lindelof appears to be a moral person with a conscience. I understand what he’s looking for, given his interest in what critics have to say. I just think he’s chasing it from the wrong perspective, because sometimes feeling bad is the only honest response after doing a bad thing. If the feeling persists, he can always donate the money he got paid for making it.