Damon Lindelof never intended to make a “Watchmen” TV series.
“It’s one of my favorite pieces of storytelling ever,” says Lindelof, 46, of the 1986-87 comic books. “So when it was mentioned as something available at HBO, I was like, ‘Not in a million years!’ It’s a [don’t] meet your idols kind of thing.”
But Lindelof, who helmed ABC’s hit “Lost” (2004-2010) and HBO’s “The Leftovers” (2014-2017), eventually came around to the idea. “Watchmen” premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.
Lindelof says he’s got a good reason for changing his mind about making the show. “I got super-jealous of the idea somebody else was going to do it,” he says, “and I’d think to myself, ‘You had a shot at this.’ ”
“Watchmen” isn’t an adaptation of its source material, encompassing an alternate history where masked vigilantes were part of American culture from the 1940s through the ’80s, and Watergate was never exposed. The HBO series is set in the same world 30 years later. Fans of the comic will recognize characters played by Jean Smart (“Fargo”) and Jeremy Irons, but protagonist Angela Abar, a detective — played by Oscar winner Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) — is new to the “Watchmen” universe.
“I feel like if you’re building on someone else’s creation, you owe it to them to bring some originality to the mix — otherwise you’re just a cover band,” says Lindelof. “The original drops you on your head in the middle of the world … That’s my favorite kind of storytelling, where the show teaches you how to watch it. My hope is that both devout fans of ‘Watchmen’ and newcomers are equally confused about how the show starts.”
“Watchmen” is set in 2019 Tulsa, where cops wear masks and the sky rains squids, but the hourlong drama is not quite sci-fi. Like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s a “what-if” version of America. Lindelof considers it a “remix,” combining parts of the original with his own material focusing on the police and white supremacists.
“In the 1980s when ‘Watchmen’ was written, the existential crisis facing America was ‘Are we going to be destroyed in a nuclear war with the USSR?’” he says. “I had to ask myself, ‘What’s the existential crisis we’re facing in 2019?’ I think the answer is that we’re reckoning with our own history — particularly as it relates to race.” That’s a hot-button issue, but Lindelof is no stranger to riled-up audiences: “Lost” had the most hotly debated series finale of the 2010s until “Game of Thrones” this past May.
“I’ve already moved through the parabola of having an immense amount of success, and I was terrified that people would say, ‘You’re just a fraud.’ And then it happened,” says Lindelof, referring to the response to the “Lost” ending. “That’s what I’m wrestling with. There’s no amount of success I will ever achieve where I suddenly wake up in the morning and go, ‘I’m f–king awesome.’ It’s just not going to happen.”
He says he uses that unease to fuel his work. “The stories I get most engaged by telling are the ones where I’m feeling this utter fear of facing something I’d rather not be thinking about, like the unanswerable questions of life, or whether or not there’s a design to things,” he says. “If I can somehow convey my discomfort to an audience and allow them to participate and feel these things we all experience … [‘Watchmen’] circles back to the same thing ‘The Leftovers’ and ‘Lost’ were about, which is people seeking some sort of relief from [generational] cycles of pain or trying to grant some form of redemption.”