Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel that helped define the medium (and, if my high school experience is any indication, introduced lots of teen readers to the concept of moral relativism) is coming to TV tonight. Well, sort of.
A new series, helmed by Lost and The Leftovers showrunner Damon Lindelof, is set in the world of Watchmen but tells an entirely new story. The show premieres on HBO on Sunday, Oct. 20 at 9 p.m. ET.
Here’s everything you need to know before the series’ first episode.
What is Watchmen?
[Ed. note: spoilers for a 30-year-old comic to follow.]
To call Watchmen a seminal work of Modern Age comics would be an understatement. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, the DC comic was published as a limited series betwen 1986 and 1987; the subsequently released trade paperback of Watchmen was one of the books that popularized the term “graphic novel.” Along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and other comics of its era, Watchmen proved that there was a huge market for mature, ambitious storytelling in comics.
So, what is the story?
Taking place in an alternate reality in which the Cold War has been set on an altered course by the existence — and subsequent banning — of costumed crimefighters, Watchmen begins up in 1985. Various former heroes are scattered around New York City living as government contractors, successful businessmen, washed-up retirees, and/or outlaw vigilantes. Following the death of his old colleague the Comedian, the vigilante Rorschach concludes that someone is going around killing costumed crimefighters. He pulls his old partner Nite Owl into his investigation, which eventually uncovers a plan cooked up by hero-turned-magnate Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) designed to avoid nuclear war by staging an alien invasion of New York City — killing millions and driving thousands more mad.
While none of the remaining masked crimefighters manage to stop Veidt, all but Rorschach conclude that they must keep his grotesque crime a secret in order to preserve world peace. The essentially omnipotent Doctor Manhattan kills him to prevent the truth from getting out — but Rorschach has already mailed his journal, full of his then-unproven conjecture, to the press.
Watchmen was published near the end of the Cold War, when the threat of global collapse was dissipating, but still palpably real. Notably though, as Polygon’s Watchmen explainer points out, while some characters are extremely nihilistic, Watchmen ends on a cautiously optimistic note. It posits that we can turn back the doomsday clock — albeit not without making some hard compromises.
What to expect from HBO’s Watchmen
The TV show Watchmen picks up in 2019, 34 years after the comic ends. While a few of the characters from the graphic novel return — Adrian Veidt and Silk Spectre (now going by Laurie Blake) are back — the story largely focuses on Regina King’s retired-cop-slash-masked-vigilante Sister Night as she fights a group of white supremacists who take inspiration from the late Rorschach.
Alan Moore has been explicit that he has nothing but disdain for adaptations and continuations of Watchmen (with good reason — while the 2009 film adaptation has one of the best opening credits sequence of all time, it is on the whole a bad movie.) However, Lindelof is walking the fine line between respect for the creator’s wishes and ownership of the source material. In a lengthy letter posted to Instagram, the Lost showrunner explained that his approach is to “remix” the series, treating Watchmen the comic as sacred but playing in the space around it. Lindelof wanted to write an “original” and “contemporary” story; we’ll have to tune in on Sunday to decide whether or not he succeeded .
How to watch Watchmen
Of course, an HBO subscription is required to watch Watchmen when it premieres. While HBO is available through a traditional cable package, in the age of streaming there are plenty of other options as well.
Those who subscribe to HBO through a cable or satellite package can stream Watchmen live or on demand via the HBO Go service. The HBO Go app is available on most phones, tablets, smart TVs, and gaming consoles. Check if your device is supported at HBO’s Help Center.
Stream Watchmen on HBO Go.
Cord cutters can still watch HBO on the network’s own platform. HBO Now is a stand-alone service, so it doesn’t require a cable subscription or another streaming platform; you stream directly from the HBO Now website or app. A one-week free trial is available — after that, it’s $14.99 per month.
Stream Watchmen on HBO Now.
Hulu also offers an HBO add-on for $14.99, which allows live HBO streaming even if you don’t subscribe to Hulu’s live TV subscription tier. Subscribing through Hulu, or any other streaming service, also grants access to the HBO Now app.
Stream Watchmen on Hulu.
In addition to the TV shows and movies available free to Prime members, Amazon offers add-on premium subscriptions through the Amazon Channels program. The HBO add-on costs $14.99 per month (the same as HBO Now). Most devices allow live streaming from the Amazon Prime Video app, but check Amazon’s official list if you’re worried about it.
Stream Watchmen on Amazon Channels.
Sony’s own TV subscription service, PlayStation Vue, is another streaming option. HBO is available as an add-on to a multichannel package or as a stand-alone subscription. It costs $14.99 per month either way. The PlayStation Vue Ultra package, which costs $79.99 per month, includes both HBO and Showtime.
Stream Watchmen on PlayStation Vue.
AT&T’s streaming service is the only subscription that includes HBO at its base level, though at $50 per month, it’s the most expensive plan on the market. Because DirecTV Now operates more like a traditional cable package, subscribers have access to HBO Go, rather than HBO Now.
Stream Watchmen on DirecTV Now.