Roush Review: HBO's 'Watchmen' Updates the Cult Comic With Dazzling Density

Matt Roush
Review HBO

Masks are all the rage in HBO's mesmerizing, mystifying and overstuffed fantasia inspired by the 1980s cult comic Watchmen. Bad guys wear them — so do cops and costumed vigilantes — and it's not always clear just who the heroes are.

Visionary writer-producer Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) has chosen not to remake the influential graphic novel but to use it as canon for a sprawling and disturbing new fable set 30-plus years later. (I now know how some Game of Thrones viewers felt diving into that complex world lacking intimate details of the dense mythology. But at least that series never kept you wondering just what story was being told.)

Luckily, the present-day incarnation of Watchmen has a vivid emotional center in Oscar and Emmy winner Regina King as Angela Abar, a Tulsa detective who masquerades as Sister Night. She's a fearless ninja when duty calls — which it does early on, after a fellow officer is shot by an outlaw from the white-supremacist movement "Seventh Cavalry." They wear spooky inkblot masks, a nod to original Watchmen rebel Rorschach, one of many Easter-egg shout-outs for those in the know. (The rest of us look up from our Wiki page and go "Hmmm.")

'Watchmen' Sneak Peek: Meet Some Fresh and Familiar Faces (PHOTOS)

'Watchmen' Sneak Peek: Meet Some Fresh and Familiar Faces (PHOTOS)

Regina King leads this star-studded ensemble cast.

This crime appears to be the opening salvo in a race war that harks back to a 1921 massacre of Tulsa's black citizens, a tragedy that opens the series on a horrific note and which figures into Angela's personal history. Though nothing about Watchmen is quite that simple, for better or cryptic worse.

There's a cosmic overlay to this alt-reality America, where Robert Redford (unseen) has been president for decades, the supreme being (and Watchmen icon) Doctor Manhattan resides on Mars, and traumatized citizens, including mirror-masked detective Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), attend extradimensional-anxiety support groups. (Understandable after that giant squid crushed Manhattan and killed millions in 1985. Flashback alert!)

(Credit: HBO)

Beyond King and Blake, who are both excellent, the outstanding cast includes many pleasures: a charismatic Don Johnson as Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford, fabulously sardonic Jean Smart as FBI agent (and former Silk Spectre) Laurie Blake, Jeremy Irons at his most whimsical as another Watchmen mainstay in curious exile, and Louis Gossett Jr. as the mysterious Will Reeves.

Damon Lindelof on 'Watchmen's Alt-World, Comic Characters & Weirdness

Damon Lindelof on 'Watchmen's Alt-World, Comic Characters & Weirdness

Plus, find out how the comic inspired 'Lost' and when the series will premiere on HBO.

His backstory, which doubles as an origin tale for the rise of "costumed adventurers," is revealed in the surreal and shimmering sixth episode, triggered by a drug named Nostalgia. You may not always be sure what you're watching, but good luck taking your eyes off Watchmen.

Watchmen, Series Premiere, Sunday, October 20, 9/8c, HBO