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The Man Inside the Mystery Box

In an industry becoming more dependent on stars and less reliant on creators, Damon Lindelof forges ahead with ‘Watchmen,’ a show that’s both a departure from ‘Lost’ and ‘The Leftovers’ and the sum of their parts

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Over the course of his prolific press tour for the new HBO series Watchmen, creator Damon Lindelof’s attitude toward his latest project could be termed “defiant ambivalence.” On the one hand, Lindelof displayed all the trepidation one would expect from a storyteller notoriously sensitive to fan reactions, let alone to an adaptation of a beloved touchstone resistant to translation, let alone to one that turns said touchstone into a vehicle for touchy hypotheticals about race and law enforcement—under the direction of a white guy, no less. “This was a huge mistake,” Lindelof told Vulture, paraphrasing his attitude in the writers’ room. “I never should have done this. Why did I do this? I can’t quit, I have to see it through, but this was a huge mistake.” His anxiety has since calmed, though it certainly hasn’t gone away. “I don’t know if I got it right,” he told Rolling Stone on the eve of the premiere, lacking the upbeat optimism that usually accompanies a showrunner’s lobbying audiences to invest in their work. To Deadline: “I am proud of what we did but I’m also very nervous about it.” Compared with, say, Game of Thrones David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s proudly copping to their lack of fantasy bona fides and getting roasted on social media accordingly, Lindelof’s public angst is a study in contrasts.

On the other hand, Lindelof’s obvious and understandable qualms about an undertaking so ambitious clearly didn’t lessen his ambitions. At the end of the day, he explained to Entertainment Weekly, “I can’t write or create from a nervous, scared space.”

Now in its second week, Watchmen doesn’t read like the work of someone who’s nervous or scared. It takes confidence to turn a pop cultural icon—albeit one who’s been highly fraught from the start—into an avatar of white supremacy. It takes confidence to drop clues, both about the inner workings of a show’s world and what the show itself is up to, at such a slow, controlled pace. It especially takes confidence to tell a story about white supremacy using iconography that, on its surface, could appeal to white supremacist beliefs: cops as a persecuted minority subject to violent retribution; conservatives as an impoverished faction corralled into a slum known as “Nixonville.” For all the uncertainty of its presentation, Watchmen itself is the work of a practiced, steady hand, applying well-honed instincts in a new direction.

Evidenced by this week’s Morning Show–headlined launch of Apple’s TV+ service, television’s ongoing arms race has made it more dependent on stars and corporations—and less dependent on the showrunners who drove the medium’s first wave of cultural expansion over the past couple of decades. Seen in this light, Lindelof’s willingness to work through his conflicted feelings in public, and our willingness to listen, makes him among the last of a rare, cerebral breed. A lifelong fan who first encountered Watchmen at age 13, Lindelof speaks the language of the franchises that have come to dominate popular culture, a group Watchmen is adjacent to if not necessarily a part of. But he approaches them with a self-awareness and openness that registers our natural caution without letting it interfere with the art. Watchmen is the latest entry in one of television’s most interesting careers. It’ll be a while before we know if it’s the best—but by all indications, Lindelof doesn’t know yet, either.

After Lost and The Leftovers, Watchmen is Lindelof’s third television series in the driver’s seat. (Lost was cocreated by J.J. Abrams and corun by Carlton Cuse.) The first two will forever be tied together as yin and yang, dealing with similar themes of existential dread and the search for meaning in opposite ways. Lost, a traditional network drama, became a cautionary tale about the vacuum at the center of most mystery boxes; The Leftovers, a prestige cable show, established itself as a near-allergic reaction to fans’ appetite for answers Lindelof had been unable to deliver to their satisfaction, making ambiguity both its premise and central concern. In retrospect, the two series were a complete statement, one correcting for the excesses of the other until balance in the universe was restored. Or, as Lindelof himself put it to Rolling Stone, paraphrasing his audience: “OK, Damon, you questioned spirituality and the purpose of why we’re here on this planet, and whether or not it’s happening for a reason or is completely arbitrary. We get it, dude … What else you got?”

Over the six episodes provided to critics, Watchmen indeed settles on a brand-new set of questions in Lindelof’s filmography, ones more interested in the tangible structures we’ve built than the intangible unknowns we grapple with. The show also fuses Lost’s propulsive mystery plotting with The Leftovers more opaque style of surrealism, suggesting Lindelof made his peace with the disappointment that comes with promising answers and forged ahead accordingly. Lindelof has also said that Watchmen was plotted as a single season, implying less that the show was intended as a limited series than that closure on its various subplots is coming sooner rather than later. Watchmen is a happy medium for Lindelof in more ways than one, combining the IP facility of his film work—building out the worlds of Alien (Prometheus), Star Trek (all three Chris Pine films), and even Disney theme parks (Tomorrowland)—with the originality of his TV projects. But as Watchmen’s closest analogs in Lindelof’s CV, Lost and The Leftovers are its most telling antecedents.

The Leftovers and Lost also established Lindelof as a singular public presence, even for a generation of showrunners known for their auteurist signatures and frequent discussion of their work. As the Watchmen caveats continue to demonstrate, Lindelof is both acutely in touch with his own emotions and remarkably candid about their effect on him. Facing backlash from Lost’s divisive finale, Lindelof infamously quit Twitter, to which he has admirably and wisely never returned; The Leftovers, a show about grief and the directionless feelings it leaves in its wake, occasioned a series of probing conversations, including one with New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz directly linking Seitz’s writing to a final-season episode of The Leftovers.

This period also established Lindelof’s uniquely close relationships with many TV critics, which continue through Watchmen’s promotional cycle. One of Lost’s most prominent recappers, Jeff “Doc” Jensen, has gone from marshaling the legions of close readers who served as Lost’s most ardent fans and harshest critics to an ongoing collaborator, most recently as a staff writer on Watchmen. The cold open of The Leftovers second season, an abrupt flashback to the ancient past, was semifacetiously framed as a poke at Ringer podcaster and former Grantland critic Andy Greenwald. And a full eight months before the Watchmen adaptation was even announced, Lindelof reached out to Vulture’s Abe Riesman to mull over the possibility of taking on the job, which he was offered a total of three times over several years before eventually saying yes.

The close ties between Lindelof and those who cover his work are understandable. With its long-game, serialized storytelling, Lost helped change the way we watch TV, and, whatever its pointed uncertainties, The Leftovers is undeniably one of the best shows of the past five years. Critics appreciate great TV, while those who make TV appreciate close and thoughtful readings of their work. The Leftovers humble ratings may have accelerated this dynamic, making critics overrepresented among its fan base in a way they weren’t for blockbusters like Thrones. Watchmen’s promising start in the numbers means this mismatch between popularity and discourse won’t necessarily repeat itself, but the personal relationships remain.

These ties don’t necessarily prevent critics, some of whom were less optimistic about Watchmen’s ability to bite off as much as it could chew than others, from evaluating Lindelof’s work objectively. But they are a vital prism through which to understand Lindelof’s persona of sensitive, doubt-ridden scribe, the antithesis of the autocrats who can give name-brand showrunners a bad name. (Lindelof has historically emphasized the contributions of his collaborators, a practice that’s particularly important given Watchmen’s interest in racism, police violence, and other subjects he has no personal experience with.) It’s possible for the anxiety around Watchmen’s concept and reception to be both entirely genuine and, in their way, useful. What better way to head off skepticism than by voicing it oneself, and to a sympathetic ear?

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.