The Watch review – a (very) loose adaptation is a gift and a curse Guards! Guards!

January 11, 2021
Jonathon Wilson 0
TV Reviews
3

Summary

BBC America’s very interpretive adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s beloved Discworld is primarily aimed at the audience who’ll hate it most, but non-devotees might find some sporadic pleasure in its scatty worldbuilding and weird tone.

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3

Summary

BBC America’s very interpretive adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s beloved Discworld is primarily aimed at the audience who’ll hate it most, but non-devotees might find some sporadic pleasure in its scatty worldbuilding and weird tone.

This review of The Watch is based on the first two episodes, “A Near Vimes Experience” and “Ook”, and contains some spoilers for both.


When it comes to utterly beloved literary settings, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld ranks quite near the top of the “just fine as it is” list. Messing with such sacred text is always a potential disaster, and when you’re messing with it as loosely and seemingly disinterestedly as BBC America’s The Watch, then there might well be issues. The first two episodes, “A Near Vimes Experience” and “Ook”, have issues aplenty, but also an admittedly engaging sense of reeling imagination, progressivism, and… fun, I think? Maybe that’s not the right word for it. Either way, there’s something going on here, something that’ll inevitably displease long-time Pratchett hardcores but that just might scratch a very peculiar itch for everyone else.

The broad setup of these first two episodes is a strung-out, bug-eyed Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) and the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork being tasked by Vetinari, the Patrician (Anna Chancellor), to investigate the theft of a library book from the Unseen University. Obviously, such a seemingly minor crime is anything but as simplistic and victimless as it seems, giving The Watch a good excuse to rope in a lot of beloved characters from the books and deploy a lot of inconsistent special effects – but more on that in a moment.

First thing’s first, after all, and it’s better to get the essentials out of the way first. “A Near Vimes Experience” uses Vimes’s conversation with Death (Wendell Pierce) to frame a time-hopping premiere that gives some background on Vimes himself – a member of Carcer Dun’s (Samuel Adewunmi) gang who joined the Watch and betrayed his criminal fellows, leading to Carcer’s supposed death – as well as members of the present-day Watch, including new recruit Carrot (Adam Hugill), Troll Sergeant Detritus (Ralph Ineson), werewolf Angua (Marama Corlett), and tall, female dwarf forensic expert Cheery (genderfluid actor Jo Eaton-Kent), whose gender identity is thankfully never really addressed. Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi) rounds out the team, at least by the end of “Ook”, the second episode, and by then the plot has started to incorporate elements from books Night Watch and Guards! Guards!, including dragons, shadowy organizations, and much more besides.

The selling point of The Watch is obviously intended to be this mismatched crew of misfits, and to the show’s credit, I think it does a fair job of making them broadly recognizable for fans of the books while also adding new quirks and contours. Everyone involved seems happy to be there, and the gender-swapped roles feel surprisingly naturalistic, rather than like a statement. By far the best part of the first two episodes is how naturally cosmopolitan Ankh-Morpork feels.

But there are problems, obviously. One of my pet peeves is when shows – or films, for that matter – are determinedly weird and off-kilter in their tone and formal elements, and while I can just about get on-board with the punk-rock vibe, the deliberate surrealism and general weirdness can be outright annoying more than anything, and sometimes the characters lean too much into it, hurrying their dialogue too much or losing it in tics. The visual effects are similarly inconsistent; you can pretty much spot where almost all of the budget was spent – the dragon! – leaving a lot of other things noticeably underdone. Logical inconsistencies like Detritus – spoiler alert! – dying at the start of the second episode thanks to being shot with crossbows, despite being made of rocks, are the kind of niggles that’ll annoy some more than others.

That, I think, can apply to The Watch as a whole. The pacing and effects and closeness of the adaptations is all over the place, but there’s just a sense of freewheeling punk anarchy that I rather respect, and that I think some viewers will be able to get on board with. Time will tell, of course, as will subsequent episodes, but for now, I think there’s just enough reason to keep watching and see where things go from here.

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