To hear social media tell it, the debut of HBO’s “Watchmen” could not have gone better, with viewers thrilled by the audacity of the storytelling and intrigued by the fact that the series was not what they anticipated prior to watching.
From within that very specific prestige TV bubble, it felt as though every person in the world — or every person who mattered — was watching the show as it aired; proof positive that watercooler watching did not die with “Game of Thrones” and that there was hope yet for the collective viewing experience.
And then the ratings were released.
It’s not that the numbers for “Watchmen” were bad. They weren’t. But it’s also not that the numbers were good. They weren’t. It’s that the numbers, like almost any ratings in the streaming era, were inscrutable.
According to HBO, 1.5 million people watched the premiere across all their available platforms on Sunday night. That seems good, for a premium cable outlet that deals in subscribers and not advertisers. Except the numbers for the iconic comic book adaptation were only a 20 percent bump over the Season 2 premiere of not-yet-a-household-name “Succession,” and down nearly 30 percent from the Season 2 premiere of “Westworld” in 2018, when the hit sci-fi Western nabbed 2.1 million viewers.
If that’s not confusing enough, consider that the “Watchmen” debut went up against a “Sunday Night Football” game featuring the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles that pulled in over 21 million pairs of eyes, as well as former ratings giant “The Walking Dead,” whose numbers are a shadow of what they once were, but still scored nearly 3.5 million viewers.
Rather, the ratings for “Watchmen” mean nothing at this juncture because it’s impossible to calculate an answer if you don’t have enough of the factors. At this point, discussing ratings feels a lot like trying to reverse engineer a math problem, we know that X is 1.5 million viewers, so instead of solving for it, we’re trying to figure out how we got here and if it matters.
The only people who could begin to answer this question are at HBO, and they haven’t shown any inclination yet as to showing their hand. The network was under no compulsion to release next-day numbers for the series, especially given the continued prevalence of time-shifted viewing. In a world where three-day and seven-day audience numbers offer a much better picture of what a program’s viewership body looks like, HBO would have been fine waiting before boasting about what is sure to be an even more robust audience.
But 1.5 million people leaves room for so many questions, particularly during a time where streaming outlets, specifically Netflix, are releasing viewership numbers touting 23 million accounts viewing Ava DuVernay’s four-part “When They See Us” limited series, but refusing to disclose what counts as a viewing, how much a person has to watch, or how it’s tabulating said views.
At this point, the waters are already muddy enough and the only way to win the game is to keep business to yourself and play the long game. HBO didn’t have to engage. But it did and how that will er narratives around the perceived success or failure of “Watchmen” remains to be seen.
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This episode of “Millions of Screens” was produced by Leonardo Adrian Garcia.
On the October 23, 2019 episode of /Film Daily, /Film editor-in-chief Peter Sciretta is joined by /Film managing editor Jacob Hall, senior writer Ben Pearson and writers Hoai-Tran Bui and Chris Evangelista to discuss what they’ve been up to at the Water Cooler.
At The Water Cooler:
What we’ve been Doing: Peter has been doing his unsubscribe week. He also went to Disneyland and Kitra build her own lightsaber. And he’s been getting recognized more often for Ordinary Adventures. Jacob went on a work trip to Estes Park, Colorado, where he stayed in a haunted hotel room at the Stanley Hotel, attending the Shining Ball, went on a ghost tour, toured the Rocky Mountains in a Jeep, and interviewed Mike Flanagan and more. What we’ve been Reading: Jacob re-read Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. Ben read Game of Thrones: A Guide to Westeros and Beyond What we’ve been Watching: Ben, Chris, HT and Peter watched the pilot of HBO’s Watchmen HT and Ben saw Jojo Rabbit. Peter saw almost 30 minutes of The Mandalorian at the junket, watched Zombieland: Double Tap, binge watched the entire season of Unbelievable on Netflix, finished watching HBO’s Years after Years, he tried watching Dark Crystal and Stumptown, and saw Between Two Ferns: The Movie on Netflix. Jacob saw Doctor Sleep but can’t tell you about it. Ben rewatched Paradise Hills, The Pixar Story, and Toy Story of Terror, and saw Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound and Portrait of a Lady on Fire Hoai-Tran saw Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Black and Blue, watched A Hard Day’s Night on Criterion Channel, and the first 4 episodes of His Dark Materials. What we’ve been Eating: Peter went to Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland and tried all their new food. Jacob drank way too much “redrum punch.” What we’ve been Playing: Jacob re-played Resident Evil 4 for the nth time, this time on the Nintendo Switch.
All the other stuff you need to know:
You can find more about all the stories we mentioned on today’s show at slashfilm.com, and linked inside the show notes. /Film Daily is published every weekday, bringing you the most exciting news from the world of movies and television as well as deeper dives into the great features from slashfilm.com. You can subscribe to /Film Daily on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify and all the popular podcast apps RSS. Send your feedback, questions, comments and concerns to us at [email protected] Please leave your name and general geographic location in case we mention the e-mail on the air. Please rate and review the podcast on iTunes, tell your friends and spread the word! Thanks to Sam Hume for our logo.
Last Sunday, HBO’s “Watchmen” recreated the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in its first episode, boosting Google searches of the horrific event, one of the most devastating in American history.
There have been previous attempts to bring the Tulsa story to the screen – Oprah Winfrey, John Legend and Tim Story all had projects in the works at one time or another. But “Watchmen” is the first to do so on such a grand scale, highlighting a very important piece of American history and making its themes current. “What is creating the most anxiety in America right now? For me the answer is undeniably race,” series creator Damon Lindelof told NBC News. “Superheroes cannot defeat racism.”
With that, “Watchmen” becomes a cutting-edge treatise on our present-day upheaval. The new series remixes the DC Comics graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, setting it in present day Tulsa, Okla., and not the usual big cities like New York or Los Angeles. This was a conscious decision by Lindelof.
“I've always thought ‘Watchmen' was about America,” Lindelof said to Tulsa World. “So I had it in mind to pick a more nontraditional place to set the show, and I was thinking, ‘How would that look?'”
The second-largest city in the state of Oklahoma as a setting for the series became viable after Lindelof read celebrated African American author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic feature, “The Case for Reparations.“
In Coates’ work, the Tulsa Massacre and destruction of the Greenwood District – aka “Black Wall Street,” the wealthiest black community in the U.S. at the time – are spotlighted as arguments among many others in favor of reparations to be paid to the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas.
And in “Watchmen’s” alternate history setting, unlike what actually happened, reparations have indeed been paid to the victims of slavery and their descendants, and resentment about this lingers among a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kalvary. “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.
In the real-life tragedy, which took place over an 18-hour period, between May 31 and June 1, 1921, the Tulsa massacre started after a 19-year-old black male was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl; the exact facts are either unknown or in dispute, and the young man was never actually prosecuted.
Whites were incensed by the allegations and, after an initial violent courthouse melee between blacks and whites, which left 10 white and two black people dead, white Tulsans launched a devastating air and ground assault in the Greenwood district of Tulsa. After it all ended, the Greenwood neighborhood had been burned to the ground, and the number of fatalities ranged anywhere from 100 to more than 300 people.
The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated property losses at the time amounted to $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property equivalent to a total of $32 million in 2018, which was never fully recovered.
It was a dark moment in American history that has largely been forgotten or just not taught, conveniently swept under the rug. “I was 43 or 44, and I wondered how could it be that I've never heard about this,” said Lindelof. “Then I read more, and I said Tulsa was the right place to set the show.”
Regina King in “Watchmen”
Mark HIll / HBO
How the Tulsa Massacre influences the series’ plot is evident from the pilot episode, which plays strongly into the show’s primary theme of racial conflict. And by the end of it, fans will likely have many questions: Who were the Seventh Cavalry in real life, and how do they connect to the fictional, Rorschach mask-wearing, white supremacist militia, the Seventh Kavalry respelled with a “K”? Does the emergency code “Little Bighorn” that Angela Abar/Sister Night Regina King receives, likely a reference to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where U.S. army officer George Armstrong Custer led the real-life Seventh Cavalry and saw his infamous last stand? Do the Bass Reeves references mean anything? Reeves was one of the first African Americans to receive a commission as a Deputy U.S. Marshal and worked mostly in Oklahoma territory.
But most importantly, how do all these seemingly disparate threads connect Lindelof’s “Watchmen” universe, if at all? As Don Johnson playing Police Chief Judd Crawford quotes a Latin phrase to his assembled Tulsa police force, invoking Article 4, which allows the 24-hour release of deadly weapons: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” “Who will watch the watchmen?”. Given the first episode’s viewership numbers according to HBO, the premiere marked the strongest debut performance for a series on its digital platforms since the premiere of “Westworld” in 2016, audiences will likely continue to watch “Watchmen” and this traumatizing period of American history will become better known.
Resources exist for those who want to dig deeper. Courtesy of the Smithsonian, check out newly digitized footage that shows scenes of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” filmed by the Rev. Harold Mose Anderson. The footage was shot between 1948 and 1952, and, according to the Smithsonian, Anderson played a major role in the neighborhood’s resurgence following the massacre. He was also a successful businessman who owned two movie theaters in the area, as well as a skating rink, a bowling alley, a shopping strip, and more. His goal was to make sure that the dollars spent by black people on Black Wall Street would stay in the community, which would, in essence, guarantee its future. Sadly, it didn’t quite pan out.
Check out a 3-minute sample of “Reverend Harold Anderson’s Black Wall Street Film” below Note: there’s no audio:
Built on the steel beams of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' legendary Watchmen comic and expanded out across three decades of alt-American history before being sunk into the soil of a country that mirrors our own, Damon Lindelof and his team have created a buzzworthy and tonally relevant piece of art. But how did they manage to sew this new thing into an old thing in a way that feels so seamless and what's the story behind some of the most visually interesting and otherwise compelling scenes in the pilot episode?
Uproxx spoke with series producer and episode one and two director Nicole Kassel to gain some insight. But warning: if you haven't seen the pilot, go back and do that now because spoilers are not spared.
On the influence of the Watchmen comics on the visual identity of the TV series.
I was very influenced by the framing. Once I read the pilot and came on board, then I did a deep dive into the aesthetic of the source. What could the Easter eggs be? And the vertical frame is so unique. So it was immediately how to look for frames within frames. And composition. The source is an unbelievable piece of art and cinema — it really is. So I have just been paying homage to it for the fans. We're telling a totally different story, [but] I wanted the DNA of it to be there. So composition, very strict framing because a comic's not moving the camera much. The lighting and transitions were a huge influence. Just these really graphic match cuts where a face is in-frame or extreme wide to extreme tight looking. Or using color to transition.
On researching and presenting the Tulsa race riot devastation accurately.
“There's a book called 'The Burning' by Tim Madigan. As soon as I heard about the story, that it was true which I only learned from the manuscript and talking to Damon [Lindelof]... as soon as I came on board, I read the book and then I had the assistant director and her team read the book and we pulled all of our research from that. Just every vignette you see on screen is documented in detail. And it was essential to me to be as accurate as possible and not to sensationalize, not to exaggerate anything, just to be as truthful as possible.”
On creating Sister Night's hero montage.
We wanted to obviously honor that we're in this genre, so there is the sequence of the costume coming together. The “Batcave.” This is her version of her secret lair and the ingredients are strange. It's a badge, but it's also a crucifix and a rosary. And really, all I cared about was making a kick-ass hero introduction. And working, being inspired by her costume. To me, that really told me where to put the camera. The way the skirt sweeps and not wanting to reveal her face until the reveal. So just making it kinetic and exciting.
On constructing the cow field raid.
I had the gift of finding a location that was perfectly designed for it. It's in Georgia. And we found it during our very first time when we were trying to choose which city to film in. We went out there and it was not as written but we knew that our cop team needed to be sitting ducks in a field. I hadn't imagined it being a trailer in a grove of trees, but it was a light bulb, like “this is great!” And the light source coming off once the bad guys realize we're onto them, the DP and I were watching Apocalypse Now and there is a sequence where Martin Sheen is approaching on a boat and there's a strobe light circling and it was just like that would be cool, if suddenly they're totally exposed. Because a field at night, it's hard to get anything interesting.
The cows we used... a lot of real cows but then once the gunfire started, everything is CGI.
On the importance of the dinner party scene.
One of the beauties of this cast is that they're all so good and such consummate actors and so supportive of each other. But we talked about, you're old friends and you've been through a lot together, you're fast friends for the last three years. It's Uncle Judd to the kids. Whether or not you know why, you are that close. They're all really great people. So what you're seeing on-screen was also the energy offscreen. And Don can really sing, but nobody there knew it. [Ed. note: it was at this point that we mentioned Johnson's “Heartbeat“]
That look of surprise on Regina's face was genuine. Like, “you can do that too?” And I think it was scary for him, but boy he just kills it. And it was essential that we truly love our hero leading into that final [scene] to be truly, totally heartbroken.
On filming the tree scene.
The filming of that was the very very last shot. It's exactly, to me, what Damon wrote. He wrote 'we push in over Old Man Will [Louis Gossett Jr.] and up the road.' It allows this emotional space, already having seen it to see it up close and the mechanics and the dread and the horror of what has happened. And then in the car with Regina, you're approaching... that call was so disconcerting and terrifying. For someone to know who she is is absolutely petrifying for her and she's driving right to it. She's also fearless. So that dread as she approaches and then the shock of the reveal. The shot that travels behind Will to the foot was... I just love cinema where you really use the camera to reveal story and as I read that scene I really felt... I just had that thought of one foot being bare just to make him so vulnerable. It's always weird to me in accidents, whether it's a car accident, a lightning strike, how people lose their shoes. It's so odd yet real and brutal. So we were just on the set and I saw that and asked for it.
T he Morning Watch is a recurring feature that highlights a handful of noteworthy videos from around the web. They could be video essays, fanmade productions, featurettes, short films, hilarious sketches, or just anything that has to do with our favorite movies and TV shows.
In this edition, run through over 80 Easter eggs and comic references from the first episode of HBO’s new Watchmen series. Plus, watch a video tribute to 25 years of films from the arthouse distributor Fox Searchlight, and listen as Kevin Smith partakes in Rolling Stone‘s “First Time” questionnaire, answering questions about the first time he
First up, now that the first episode of HBO’s new Watchmen series has debuted on HBO, you can dig into the many Easter eggs and comic references there are to the original graphic novel, thanks to ScreenCrush. This series actually considers the graphic novel canon, not the movie, so there are some interesting details to pick up on in this debut episode.
In case you needed a reminder of all the great movies that Fox Searchlight has released since forming 25 years ago, this outstanding montage features clips from movies like The Favourite, Little Miss Sunshine, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, and many more.
For Rolling Stone, Kevin Smith talks about a lot of different firsts in his life. Find out the first time he met Jason Mewes, the first time he met Stan Lee, the first time he saw Star Wars, his first time going to Comic-Con, and much more. It’s in support of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, which is rolling out to various theaters as the Reboot Roadshow tours the country.
[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 1, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice.”]
For everyone who’s known about Don Johnson’s remarkable charisma since the ’80s, let me apologize. I missed the boat with “Miami Vice” and never sunk my teeth into “Nash Bridges.” Are there gnash/Nash puns in the CBS police procedural? I wouldn’t know, but a boy can dream.
But his fairly limited time on screen in the “Watchmen” premiere is a masterclass in charm, magnetism, or whatever mystical onscreen attribute boils down to instant likability. Much of it is Johnson’s prudent performance as Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford. Some of it is savvy writing, all the way up through the captain’s last-minute death. But the combination of both equate to one fact and another more troubling — and more important — afterthought: Judd was a beloved man, and it’s easy to see why. But should he be?
There are many reasons the audience is meant to like Judd — his friendship with Angela Abar Regina King chief among them. Their in-office back-and-forth over “Oklahoma” as well as their shared family dinner later enforces their relationship goes beyond a working one. He’s seen both sides of Angela’s mask and, since he doesn’t wear one, it’s easy to presume she knows him just as well. When the one person Angela you feel like you can trust in a strange new world trusts someone else Judd, you trust them, too.
Judd’s inherent trust in Angela — shown when she hauls in a suspect before he even asks her to — further illustrates this shared bond between characters and audience, but the chief’s solo moments are just as enticing. Take his visit to Roberta Sutton Zsane Jhe, the wife of the police officer shot by a Seventh Kavalry member. For a difficult conversation, Judd leans in close to Roberta, speaking at a calm, level voice, and when it inevitably gets contentious, he holds his tone: “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking,” Judd says to the frustrated Roberta. “‘Fuck me and the horse I rode in on.'” “He liked you,” she says. And without missing a beat, Judd replies, “No, he likes me.”
It’s a cheeky remark with a hopeful tilt: Judd emphasizes the present tense to remind Roberta her husband, Charlie Donald Watkins, is still alive, even hinting that he’ll stay that way. But it also not-so-subtly builds bridges. If Charlie likes Judd, she should, too. We all should. Look at this good ol’ boy police chief, delivering the hard news in person, listening to Roberta’s worries, and soothing them with a dash of charm. That Johnson doesn’t overdo it with the charm, flashing a big smile or even breaking from his respectful demeanor, speaks well of the actor’s insight, as well as any guidance given by director Nicole Kassell.
Don Johnson and Frances Fisher in “Watchmen”
Van Redin / HBO
By the time Judd breaks into a rendition of “People Will Say We’re in Love” at the dinner table, everyone watching is right there with Angela, Cal Yahya Abdul Mateen II, and Jane Frances Fisher: We’re all putty in Judd’s hands. Of course, that moment if not sooner is when you should realize he’s probably going to die. If his comment to the troops earlier didn’t do it — “It’s my funeral” — then a charisma overload via “Oklahoma!” should settle his fate. For those unversed in “Oklahoma!”, the musical’s Jud character also dies. By the time the chief dons his uniform one more time and hits the road solo, it’s pretty clear he won’t be coming home — and that’s OK. Having the audience beg the TV gods to spare their new favorite father figure only makes the painful final shot all the more affecting.
But should we be mourning the loss of Judd, or just Johnson’s surefire Emmy-nominated turn? Given the way in which the character died, as well as “Watchmen’s” general de-mystifying themes, it’s safe to say no one is as good as they seem — or, better put, no one is as purely perfect as they would be in another show about heroes. Even Angela takes the law into her own hands. Sure, we’re OK with it because the guy she’s beating bloody is a white supremacist, but she’s still operating outside her rights.
Judd, too, went off-book when he blew that airplane out of the sky and snorted a load of cocaine during family dinner. How Kassell frames that shot in particular — with the camera a safe distance from Judd just as Judd is a safe distance from the party — hints that he’s keeping something from everyone else. Throw in the opening film-within-a-film — where the real Bass Reeves arrests the local sheriff, describing him as a “scoundrel” who stole the town’s cattle — and there’s reason to believe ol’ Judd has plenty more to share, even after he’s dead.
What that is, exactly, remains unclear, but what’s already evident is that “Watchmen” has found a way to weaponize charisma; that the response to Johnson’s magnetic turn, both instinctual and provoked, is designed to be upended in one way or another. Likability is a mirage. Judd may not be wearing a physical mask, but his Southern charm could produce the very same effect: What’s he hiding behind all that affability? And what does this alt-reality character say about the real-world, where plenty of beloved public figures are revealed to be someone else once they duck behind closed doors?
“Watchmen” has its eye honed on what other American hero stories ignore, so to introduce Judd as a universally beloved figure with very minor vices only emphasizes the idea that we haven’t seen the full picture yet. For now, let’s praise the work and wait on the man — there’s a lot more sleuthing to be done.
“Watchmen” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.