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Marama Corlett as Corporal Angua stands in front of a barred window and looks at the camera with extremely bloodshot eyes in The Watch Photo: Ilze Kitshoff / BBCA

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The Watch TV series muddles Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with ‘edgy’ humor

It isn’t meant as a straight adaptation, but even so, it’s a tonal jumble

[Ed. note: This is an advance review of BBC America’s Terry Pratchett adaptation series The Watch. The series debuts on Sunday, January 3, 2021.]

To bestselling fantasy author Terry Pratchett, there was no such thing as a too-obvious joke. Take his character Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill), a well-meaning young man looking to make his name in law enforcement. Pratchett’s Discworld novels explain that Carrot is human, but was raised by dwarves after his birth parents abandoned him. The joke being, he’s tall for a dwarf, which led to considerable tensions down in the mine. (See also: Will Ferrell in Elf.) It’s a decent gag, and it shows up fairly early on in The Watch, BBC America’s latest take on Pratchett’s work.

But soon after, Carrot meets forensics expert Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton). In this series, she’s about as tall as Carrot, and she’s an actual dwarf. That means Carrot’s size isn’t actually unusual, which ruins the gag. Eaton is fine in the role, and when the creative team decided to cast them, they could’ve easily skipped this particular part of Carrot’s backstory. Instead, they keep both — and while it’s not a major flaw, it’s indicative of a muddled production where the team can’t decide whether they want to adapt Pratchett’s work, riff on it, or just use it for window dressing.

The Watch is wacky. Exhaustingly so, really, full of rapid-fire cuts, incongruous music choices, and a sense of humor that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen an animated movie in the past 10 years. Some of the jokes land, while many of them don’t, but that style feels directly at odds with the series’ source of inspiration. Pratchett’s Discworld novels are the fantasy equivalent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — dry, farcical humor that winks at the audience — except that they have more warmth, better world-building, and a deep, pervasive humanism.

The comedy is broad and clever, with Groucho Marx absurdism sitting cheek-to-jowl with Abbott and Costello slapstick, which fumbles over Swiftian wit. The books’ mix of tones holds together thanks to Pratchett’s clear, comfortable voice and his strong grasp of story and pacing. Very little of his work could be described as self-consciously edgy. The same can’t be said for the show.

City Watch member Corporal Cheery, played  by Jo Eaton-Kent, talks to rocky troll Detritus, played by Craig MacRae, in The Watch Photo: Ilze Kitshoff / BBCA

In and of itself, that isn’t not necessarily a problem. The creative team behind The Watch (written by Simon Allen and produced by Johann Knobel) has made it clear that while the series was “inspired” by Pratchett’s work, it isn’t beholden to it. Given the paucity of strong Pratchett adaptations, this is arguably a sensible approach. It’s just that in their attempt to come up with a new take on familiar material, they repeatedly reference that material without providing any new context or perspective to distinguish their work. What spin The Watch does add is a kind of overly aggressive quirk, a corporate-punk styling that uses faux-edginess as a cover for well-worn tropes and bad storytelling. The pace is zippy enough that watching the show never becomes an active chore, but the charm is almost entirely absent.

Pulling elements from several different books in the series, The Watch’s plot follows Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) and his motley band of misfits as they attempt to stop a villain from Vimes’ past from destroying the city of Ankh-Morpork. Said villain has a name that should be familiar to Discworld fans, but the Carcer Dun seen here (played by Sam Adewunmi) is a far cry from the nasty sociopath introduced in Pratchett’s Night Watch.

It’s a strange pull: the novel Carcer is a right clever bastard, despicable to a fault and loathsome to boot. The TV-show Carcer barely has any personality at all, sulking through scenes and acting aggrieved before quickly fading into the overly loud background. His backstory with Vimes is presented in awkward flashbacks (introduced via a wholly unnecessary framing device in the first episode) that raises more questions than it asks, and nothing about the character ever rises above basic plot functionality. Bad enough to include a bland antagonist; worse still to name him after a far more interesting one.

The rest of the cast ranges in quality from distracting to good, with Dormer’s Vimes unfortunately falling into the latter camp. It’s hard to know how much to blame the script or the direction for the choices the actor makes here, but his decision to go through every scene with his jaw thrust forward like his skull is trying to escape his face is an odd one. It speaks to a general tendency to overplay the character’s physicality as a sort of Gilliam-level grotesque.

Lara Rossi as Lady Sybil Ramkin stands in front of a broad grate with someone on fire in The Watch Photo: Ilze Kitshoff / BBCA

That’s a shame, given that Vimes is one of Pratchett’s best characters, a working-class hero whose common sense, decency, and basic humanity have little in common with the grimacing punchline seen here. Few other performances stand out quite so sharply, for good or for ill; the best that can be said about the core ensemble (including Dormer, Hugill, Eaton, Marama Corlett as Angua, and Lara Rossi as Lady Sybil Ramkin) is that it quickly gels into a likeable enough whole.

The show’s version of Ankh-Mopork starts with the source books’ fantasy melting pot and throws on a steampunk gloss for no readily apparent reason. It’s as if the production team decided they really wished they were working on a late-series Doctor Who episode, and decided to build sets and costumes for that instead. Some individual moments and scenes stand out — one highlight finds the heroes pretending to be a band, for reasons; another has them visiting a nursing home with a very specific deterrent against violence. But the city as a whole never coheres, which makes it difficult to see the Watch’s part in all of it. The nominal arc of the group is watching them go from misfits to heroes, but without a clear sense of a community to protect, the story becomes more about them going through the expected motions rather than justifying those motions.

The lack of narrative build is evident in the scripting as well. The Watch repeatedly uses familiar tropes as though simply acknowledging that the trope exists counts as effective character development. An early episode features a major death in an opening scene, immediately followed by characters deciding to use that death as motivation to solve a crime, even though they were already investigating that crime. Then they never mention the death again. (It honestly feels like the character was removed for budget reasons, not story purposes.) There’s no rising action or stakes, and rarely a sense of anything mattering beyond an excuse to get us to the next set-piece. Is it watchable? Sure. Some of the setpieces are fun enough. It’s just a pity that so much work and time — and such a beloved, iconic source series — went into something so pleasantly empty.

The Watch premieres on BBC America on Sunday, January 3, 2021.