Despite the popularity of the idea, books are difficult to adapt for television without major shifts in format. Building on existing IP is an easy sell for most studios because of the built-in fandom, and yet, that fandom is exactly the one that can be the most alienated from the adaptation when risks are taken. In the case of BBC America’s The Watch, what began as a TV series based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of fantasy novels ended up as “inspired by characters created by Terry Pratchett,” which is really just one step away from not having anything to do with Discworld at all (something Pratchett himself may prefer). As someone who hasn’t read the Discworld novels but does know the 1990s CD-ROM game, there is something vaguely familiar about The Watch’s sardonic British humor. But the show’s biggest change is not gender-swapping or eliminating characters from the books, it’s the choice to set the story not in a medieval world but in a punk rock dystopia.
The eight-episode first season focuses on the misfits of The City Watch, a police organization in a city ruled by crime guilds. The guilds are regulated, though—the assassins are allowed to kill a certain number of citizens a year (and must leave receipts on the bodies), while people can schedule muggings or other thief-related activity as those guilds also fill their quotas. It leaves The Watch as a toothless organization, run by a roughshod drunk named Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer). Vimes, who is still paying emotional penance for betraying a guild member decades before, drags himself through scenes, dramatically stumbling and hitting rock bottom again and again and again. Dormer is eating all of the scenery around him with his portrayal, but it works with The Watch’s lighter and more cartoonish moments (where it’s really at its best).
Vimes teams up with Angua (Marama Corlett),a no-nonsense werewolf; Carrot (Adam Hugill), a law-abiding human who was raised by dwarves; Cheery (Jo Eaton-Kent), a glam alchemist; and the only real adult in the group, Lady Sybil Ramkin (stand-out Lara Rossi). There’s also a talking magical sword (Matt Berry), an incarnation of death (Wendell Pierce), and a man made of stone (Ralph Ineson). Plus, a wizard who turns people into couches, a miniature dragon and an assassin named “The Duke of Stab” (“Sex Party Dead” was a close second mention here, but truly the best assassin name is “Bad Steph,” formerly just known as Steph). I haven’t even mentioned the trolls who are the spiritual cousins of Holy Grail’s socialist-awakened mud farmers! All of this comes together to weave a complicated and not altogether easy to follow story about … resistance?
There are two interesting things that The Watch is doing, though. One, its Cyberpunk-y setting actually feels unique among sci-fi series, particularly in its costuming. Gender means very little—almost everyone has heavy eyeliner, piercings, dramatic hair styles and color, leather accessories, and thick-heeled boots. There’s something sort of organically queer about this world without it needing to explicitly state it. There are some glam rock influences that are particularly fun, although they juxtapose oddly with a ruling class that look ported from old episodes of Doctor Who (there are a lot of Whovian influences, including a great deal of very low-budget CG), not to mention the wizards whose garb seems leftover from the original Discworld setting and don’t make much sense here.
Hodgepodge is really the word for The Watch, and for its first several episodes, it seems to have no idea what it really wants to do, or say, or how to do or say it. The humor arrives slyly and in spurts, but it’s very hard to overcome the naturally dim, dour, and depressing dystopian setting to make it really work. You can’t have rock without disco, and you can’t have punk without pop. But The Watch only works on one cold stylistic wavelength, and it clashes oddly with snappy dialogue and warm characters. Those characters are really the lifeblood of an otherwise very messy show. I wrote down a myriad of quotes to include in this piece, yet all of them sound flat without context. It’s the life that The Watch’s cast gives to them that makes them work so well.
Here’s the bottom line: I want to like The Watch. I continued marching through screeners (five episodes were provided) even though I more or less had my opinion formed after the first two. There are lots of moments that delighted me, even though they’re mostly buried—especially to start—under a lot of odd tonal choices. Still, the charm of the cast and the script’s playful aspirations were enough to keep pushing through choppy editing and storytelling. My reward was that the show does get a little better as it goes. Even if it didn’t want to go full Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or even Miracle Workers: Dark Ages) in terms of its humor (and honestly, why not?) it still could have learned something from The Witcher TV show, which—despite other faults—did manage to imbue the right amount of silliness into an otherwise serious setting.
The Watch is currently in a category of show I would describe as Whovian-with-a-dash-of-2010s-Syfy-flavor. It has some interesting ideas and gives a fresh spin on an old sci-fi formula, but it doesn’t come together the way it really needs to in order to become recommended viewing. It’s difficult to suggest waiting around for a show to get “better” when “better” is such a nebulous idea, but essentially, if you find yourself cautiously intrigued by the premiere, consider spending a little more time with these lovable rogues.
The first two episodes of The Watch premiere January 3 on BBC America, with episodes premiering weekly after that. AMC+, the company’s new premium streaming bundle, will exclusively premiere the first episode of The Watch on Thursday, December 31, with additional episodes timed their linear cable premiere.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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