“How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask?” That’s what Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson drawled back in the second season premiere of “Mr. Robot.” A few years later, Elliot may have found something resembling an answer, and my beloved hacker-drama is wrapping up its run, part-way through its fourth and final season. Don’t fear, dear reader, I’m still in love with writer/director Sam Esmail’s signature, subjective aesthetic and his concoction of rage and critique—but these days, the show faces stiff competition for my time.
My Sunday nights go a little something like this. First, I toil for three-and-a-half hours at Phonathon, calling parents and alumni, begging them for money, so we can keep Brandeis’ hot water running. But salvation looms: When I get off shift at 9 p.m., there’s a brand new episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” waiting for me. But I’ve got to hurry, because 10 p.m. is “Mr. Robot” time. Have I put more effort into figuring out the most efficient way to watch both, ASAP, than some of my classes this semester? Maybe. Tick-tock.
But in an age when there’s far too much TV (seriously, every single person in my life is telling me to watch “BoJack Horseman,” but at least we’ve got a review this week from Lucy Pugh-Sellers,) “Watchmen” has carved out time in my schedule like nothing else. It’s not a direct adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1986, 12-issue masterpiece, unlike the creatively bankrupt film of the same name (which hit theaters in 2009). Instead, HBO has handed the property to writer Damon Lindelof. Lindelof’s love of the source material is no secret—he’s got a pull quote on the back of the graphic novel calling it “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.”
But Lindelof has made some pretty bad popular fiction himself. He cut his teeth as the showrunner on “Lost” before writing “Cowboys and Aliens,” “Prometheus” and “Tomorrowland.” But the Lindelof who’s helming “Watchmen” is not that immature scribe; no, the Lindelof writing “Watchmen” is the Lindelof who made “The Leftovers,” one of the greatest television shows of all time. For as much as I love to wax poetic about “Mr. Robot,” it could still stumble at the finish line. Meanwhile, over 28 episodes, “The Leftovers” has already thoroughly demonstrated its enduring existential worth, and in doing so, has proven that Lindelof deserves our attention. With his last project, the dude figured out how to pose questions without promising answers. His viewers are all better off, and I’m sure his Rabbi is proud.
And the questions “Watchmen” poses are simply seriously compelling. The show is set in 2019, 30 years after the events of the graphic novel. But the pilot opens in June 1921, with the burning of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, a real-world event that’s been largely erased from the history books by racists. About a hundred years later, Detective Angela Abar (Regina King) serves on the Tulsa police force, fighting the “Seventh Kavalry,” a group of hateful bastards–who all wear masks resembling the face worn by Rorschach (one of the characters in the original comic). The cops wear masks too—in the wake of a traumatic attack by the Kavalry a few years’ prior, police officer’s identities are all kept hidden from the public.
Over the course of the first episode, the dynamics of “Watchmen’s” world emerge. The white supremacists certainly aren’t the good guys, but the cops—proto-fascists who use lethal force, accountable to no one—aren’t looking so great either. How can we know who anybody is when everyone is wearing a mask?
But “Watchmen” isn’t as morose as Lindelof’s prior outing. It’s also a superhero show, with glitzy set-pieces, staged with gusto by director Nicole Kassell (an extremely gifted woman who’s been directing television for years but to whom Hollywood won’t hand a feature film). Action is a key component of the show’s DNA, but unlike something you can catch on the CW, “Watchmen” also asks you to think about the violence you—and its characters—are eating up. King, meanwhile, heads a fantastic cast, and it’s exciting to watch the actress lend her considerable talent to such ambiguous territory.
Of the two episodes that have aired, I found the pilot a bit stronger, but across the board, I can’t help but feel like we’re witnessing something special here. It’s ambitious and relevant material—Lindelof is using the superhero genre to dissect the things that are making him anxious today. He’s also pulling from a profound—if unexpected—influence: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ groundbreaking “Atlantic” article “The Case for Reparations.” Yes, in the alternate history of “Watchmen,” Robert Redford is president, and he’s publically and financially acknowledged this country’s horrific treatment of African Americans.
Whether Lindelof can pull all this off—the mix of spectacle, social commentary and dealing with the dangling threads leftover from the comic—is anybody’s guess. But I’m fascinated by this thing. Lindelof and Esmail have been dueling over ideas for years—both used the Pixies’ song “Where is my mind?” to illustrate a loss of objectivity, and now both are tackling the validity of persona. My goal was to talk about both “Mr. Robot” and “The Leftovers” in this piece—alas. But as one of my favorite shows comes to an end, another is just starting. These days, Sunday nights are a special time.