Watchmen, Sky Atlantic (5 stars)

Watchmen, Sky Atlantic

An astonishing visual and narrative treatment of a classic graphic novel which brings it crashing superbly into the contemporary world

Watchmen, the seminal comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, has long been considered unfilmable. Zack Snyder took a decent punt at it with his big-screen adaptation in 2009 which was visually arresting if only superficially faithful. The story has been crying out for the lengthy running time of a multi-episode TV series to let it breathe, ideally bolstered by a generous budget and considerable talent.

Thankfully, showrunner Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) has joined forces with HBO to create a startling, almost flawless piece of work that pays homage to its source material while telling a mostly brand new story set within the same universe. While most of the original characters are sidelined in favour of a fresh set of participants, the fundamental essence of Watchmen remains intact. A story about reluctant heroes donning masks to tackle systemic injustice to the chagrin of the establishment they represent, it acts as a conspicuous examination of the fractured state of current US (and world) politics.

Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma in an alternative 2019, a group of white supremacists called The Seventh Kavalry breaks a ceasefire with local law enforcement. Following this outbreak of violence, we follow Angela Abar (Regina King), a local police officer who also operates under the secret guise of Sister Night, determined to mete out justice in a world where vigilantism is not just forbidden but is being specifically targeted by the FBI. An encounter with a mysterious old man (Louis Gossett Jr) sets Abar off on a painful journey through her own ancestry, a past that's bursting with secrecy and contemporary relevance. Flashbacks and other devices are used to flesh out both her personal history and the foundations upon which the broader narrative rests.

Abar later finds herself under the close watch of federal agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart, playing the daughter of Silk Spectre and The Comedian from the source novel), while we also meet fellow officer Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) whose decision to wear a mirrored mask is explained in one of the series' most astonishing scenes. Elsewhere, Jeremy Irons chews all the scenery he can consume as the mysterious Adrian Veidt, a wonderfully unpredictable Promethean character with shades of Howard Hughes.

Despite the story's vast scope, Lindelof successfully binds his various loose threads which tangle around time, space and other dimensions. Shocking revelations are frequently inverted by the very next chapter, but it never exploits your investment as an impressive logic underpins the whole. Helpfully, Lindelof's script is brought to life by an exceptional cast. King, hot from her Oscar win for If Beale Street Could Talk, brings to life a fascinatingly complex character whose fragile existence is in constant flux. And Jean Smart clearly relished her role as a federal agent who takes sadistic pleasure in her sport of apprehending vigilantes, despite their categorically noble intentions.

Never forgetting the source material, Watchmen is visually captivating, most notably in the numerous flashbacks which employ audacious match cuts to segue between past and present. An electric score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, drives the occasional bursts of action with a mesmerising, percussive thrum, while a suite of contemporaneous songs lends pathos and subtext. In crafting his own story, Lindelof has conjured up something quite extraordinary and, for a first season, remarkably ambitious. Watchmen is a bravura piece of television which takes the best elements from its source material and repurposes them into a fascinating allegory for the present day.

Episodes watched: 6 of 9

Watchmen starts on Sky Atlantic, Monday 21 October, 9pm.