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HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ a messy, gorgeous triumph

It sounded as though “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof had fallen victim to something combining the worst aspects of hubris and masochism.

Hubrichism, if you will.

Fanboys the world over still railed at him at every turn for the divisive ending of that ABC phenomenon. Now he was going to turn the beloved comic book “Watchmen” into a TV show? Not since teenagers named Eugene or Melvin entered high schools in 1980s teen comedies had anyone been so ripe for bullying.

Mercifully, the resulting drama, debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO, is nothing short of a triumph.

‘Remixing’ a classic

Some backstory: Published in 1986 and 1987, the 12 issues of “Watchmen” have long been considered the medium’s greatest achievement. With its morally ambiguous themes that served as a deconstruction of the superhero genre, the series welcomed grown-ups back to the pages of comic books.

The problem lies in the fact that — as its prickly writer, Alan Moore, attested — “Watchmen” was never supposed to be anything other than those 12 comic books. No prequels or sequels, even though DC cranked out both. No movies, which, considering the way Zack Snyder’s 2009 effort turned out, seems to have been a wise call. And, certainly, no TV series.

Moore won’t even let his name be used in conjunction with HBO’s “Watchmen.” Instead, the credits read, “Based on characters co-created for DC by Dave Gibbons.” (The more approachable illustrator serves as a consulting producer on the series.)

Lindelof’s adaptation — he refers to it as a “remix” — picks up three decades after the events of the original series, trading its Cold War setting and the threat of nuclear annihilation for the domestic terrorism and violent racism of today. In “Watchmen’s” alternate America, Vietnam is our 51st state, Watergate never happened, and Robert Redford has been president for decades.

The 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that opens the series and serves as its backbone, though, is sadly quite real.

In keeping with the source material, masked vigilantes are still outlawed, to the point that there are crackdowns and sting operations — even an FBI task force — dedicated to taking them off the streets. The Tulsa police, though, only appear in public with their faces obscured, owing to a series of coordinated murders years ago that left their ranks decimated. The thinking being, if the racist thugs from the Seventh Kavalry don’t know you’re a cop, it’s harder for them to murder you and your family while you sleep.

Some members of that police force — such as the hooded, black-robed Sister Night (2019 Oscar winner Regina King) and the mirror-masked Looking Glass (the reliably weird Tim Blake Nelson) — embrace the concept more enthusiastically than others. In doing so, their actions become harder to separate from those of the goons they’re trying to stop.

Sure to spark outcry

Like Lindelof’s previous HBO drama, “The Leftovers,” the series slowly explains itself — there’s a massive data dump in Episode 3 — while rewarding anyone with a knowledge of its source material. You don’t need to have read “Watchmen” to watch “Watchmen,” but, honestly, why wouldn’t you? It’s a rite of passage, no matter your age.

For those who have, there are plenty of Easter eggs and callbacks, including squid, a certain U.S. senator and a gleaming, naked, blue giant/god.

For everyone else, there’s some “Westworld”-style disorientation lingering in this messy, gorgeous, gripping drama. It can’t out-strange FX’s “Legion” — both shows share actress Jean Smart — but “Watchmen” gives the recently completed comic spinoff a run for its bizarre money.

Owing to the reverence in which the original work is held, there’s bound to be some complaining.

Considering the way both works leave matters of right and wrong and even the definition of a hero up for grabs, you can count on the series being misunderstood.

Given the still vitriolic reaction to that “Lost” finale, there will be plenty of viewers who never even tune in.

But give Lindelof a break. It’s been almost a decade. He’s clearly earned it. He’s obviously a fan of “Watchmen.”

And, for the last time, no, the characters on “Lost” weren’t really dead the whole time.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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