As compelling as Watchmen might be, its yet another show that relies on a mystery box form of storytelling that can prove frustrating

The most recent episode of Watchmen ended, as it so often does, on a puzzling note. FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) has adjourned to her hotel room for a moment of personal time, which will be facilitated by the contents of her briefcase. She cracks it open to reveal a metallic ice-blue dildo with attachable testicles, so shiny and girthy that it looks more like a relay runners baton than a sex toy. Those familiar with Alan Moores source material will make the connection to Lauries ex Dr Manhattan and his robins-egg genitals, but even viewers in the know will be stricken by bafflement. Why does she carry this with her in a bulky storage case at all times? What of the minimalist design, which showrunner Damon Lindelof likened to a Jeff Koons sculpture in one of the instant-postmortem interviews that run every Sunday night? And why is the thing so gosh-darned big?

Questions like these serve as the currency for Lindelofs sequel/reinterpretation of the landmark graphic novel, a show that traffics in what-just-happened confusion on a week-to-week basis. Some of its many riddles the enduring mystery of why one law enforcement official wears an oversized panda head, for instance, or the reason that a cloned manservant gives his master a horseshoe with which to eat a piece of cake seem unlikely to ever be solved. Others, such as the party or parties operating the flying saucer that appeared out of nowhere to magnet-airlift one characters car away as if it was a crane-game prize, must be clarified for the plot to move forward. But telling one from the other is all ultimately guesswork, with the audience left in the dark, right where Lindelof wants them.

We dont even know what were supposed to know, and thats where the bother lies. Lindelof thrives on all things confounding, the one point his previous works Lostand The Leftoversmade abundantly clear. When considered after the fact of their broadcast runs as a discrete, closed-off whole, the series making up his body of work constitute some of the most entrancingly strange television in the mediums history. But when experienced on a week-to-week basis, theres a mild yet consistent frustration all too familiar to those with fresh memories of mid-00s genre projects like Lost and its lesser kindred Heroes. The Lindelofian element gives the impression that this perfectly intelligent, worthy show feels the need to trick its audience into tuning in week after week.

Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly in Lost. Photograph: Channel 4 Picture Publicity

To put it in Rumsfeldian terms, most TV shows operate within the unknown known, establishing a clearcut quantity of suspense to be resolved over the course of a season or series: who will win the game of thrones, who will succeed as CEO of Waystar Royco, who will challenge Tony Sopranos mafia supremacy, etc. Lindelof descends into the unknown unknown, generating drama by showing viewers complete non sequiturs without the information required to make sense of them. Even Breaking Bad, and its decontextualized in-medias-res cold opens, isolated its floating eyeballs and destroyed pools from the main narrative. (And that still felt like a cheap hook for an already-gripping show to lean on.) If a showrunners not mindful about tethering their show to some foundation of comprehensibility, they end up with something in the spacey universe of Legion, drowning in weirdness for its own sake.

To an extent, Lindelof is at a disadvantage of medium. Films can afford to adopt this modus operandi; by the end of a self-contained unit of time spanning two hours or so, the viewer will have received all the textual clues required to understand the work, or barring that, to gin up their own interpretation. Watchmen dares its viewership to solve its puzzles, but only gives them a handful of the pieces per week. Ironically enough, at a time when everyone seems to be running for the hills of streaming, the one series begging to be binged instead props up HBOs programming schedule.

Watchmen has so much going for it, from the immersive detail of its speculative-fiction America to its thorny meditations on the politics of law enforcement. It has more profound quandaries to offer than whats going on here? and whatll happen next? In the same episode containing the unconventional marital aid, Laurie stops for a chat with an old acquaintance and tells him a brick joke, a form of humor in which one set-ups punchline doesnt come until the end of a second premise. The gag works by delaying the payoff, a manipulation of tension that relies on structure to achieve its effect. For a joke that takes all of a minute to tell, this technique works a treat. But week after week spent waiting start to wear on the patience.



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