It seems highly unlikely that HBO’s Watchmen will produce a second season.
To be fair, showrunner Damon Lindelof always made it clear that he had only ever planned a single season of the show. However, last week HBO programming chief Casey Bloys confirmed to USA Today that HBO would not push ahead with the series without Lindelof at the helm. If Lindelof had new ideas, HBO would be happy to renew. If he didn’t, the show would be retired.
On one level, this is disappointing news. Watchmen was one of the best new shows of 2019, offering a bold new remix of the classic Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic to considerable acclaim. It was also a success for HBO. It was the channel’s biggest new show since Big Little Lies, a word of mouth sensation, and — in a development worthy of Doctor Manhattan — a time-shifted phenomenon.
However, there is something to be said for allowing Lindelof to end Watchmen on his own terms, to produce a season of television in accordance with his own vision and to call it a day. Perhaps nine episodes is enough for this story. Maybe Watchmen should remain a relatively self-contained experience, as much as that is possible for a sequel to a classic comic book. This decision helps to delineate Watchmen from a lot of the medium around it. It also speaks to the ways in which television is changing and evolving, its artistic and creative priorities shifting for a new age less tied to a standardized model.
Of course, television has a format for single-season self-contained narratives. Television events like Roots or Salem’s Lot ran as short miniseries. However, Watchmen was never sold as a “miniseries.” Even while insisting he had only planned a single season, Lindelof conceded that there was “a potential promise for the further exploration of the world.”
American television is drawn to the multi-season series format. Discussing broadcast networks’ relative lack of interest in self-contained miniseries, former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield explained, “It doesn’t have that cash flow. It doesn’t have that sales opportunity. More and more, what networks realized is it’s really about the repeat visit in the habit of the series [viewing].”
Like any other art form, television is shaped by commercial realities. The standard hour-long drama ran 40-odd minutes because it had to accommodate 15-or-so minutes of advertising. Historically, television series avoided serialization because it was easier to package episodic shows for syndication so that people could miss episodes without getting lost.
Artistic concerns aside, a lot of television has historically existed to fill space. For a long time, syndication was the target, a bar often set at 100 episodes. Series with longer runs are easier to sell. More seasons means more episodes. More episodes means that a syndication partner goes longer without having to repeat an episode or find another show to fill the spot.
This is still a factor in television production, even if syndication is less of a money-maker and fewer dramas hit that 100-episode milestone. Instead, modern television production is about “content” — building a back catalogue that can be used to market a streaming service. The numbers are different, but the math is the same. Netflix aims for three seasons instead of five, 30 episodes instead of 100.
Historically, these market concerns shaped the way in which television was produced. Very few classic series ended at their peak. Networks had no justification for ending popular and successful shows. High-rated and well-reviewed shows got renewed. Cancellation occurred when a show ceased to be valuable, usually by driving its audience away through bad choices or exhaustion.
The X-Files is a good example of this. Chris Carter originally planned for the show to run for five seasons. However, the show was a critical and commercial juggernaut. Gillian Anderson had won an Emmy. There was a film coming to theaters. Fox convinced Carter to keep the show on the air, bringing it to Los Angeles for two higher-budget seasons that are more divisive among the fandom.
There was a sense that the seventh season might be the last season, with the show wrapping up long-form arcs and David Duchovny suggesting that he was done. Unfortunately, a disastrous season at Fox forced the network to renew The X-Files for an eighth season. Against all odds, the eighth season was a critical and commercial success.
The eighth season of The X-Files would have been a reasonable point at which to end the show, and it would probably have ensured a stronger pop cultural legacy for the series. However, the success of the eighth season led Fox to commission a disastrous ninth season. That drove ratings into the ground, ensuring that one of the most iconic shows of the ’90s ended with a whimper.
This remains a problem, even in the era of prestige and peak television. Would Stranger Things or Jessica Jones be more fondly remembered if they had been allowed to exist as single-season entities? The first season of Killing Eve was a breakout hit from the pen of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but the second season stumbled in the absence of her creative guidance.
Even for boutique providers like AMC or HBO, there is a need to fill air. Television auteurs like Vince Gilligan and David Chase agreed to “two-part” final seasons of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, in part to help prevent a scheduling gap by allowing the shows to broadcast in another calendar year. (This is also why HBO was happy to stagger and split the final seasons of Game of Thrones.)
The desire to allow creators to craft self-contained narratives and the need for brand recognition in a crowded marketplace exist at odds with one another. Efforts to square this circle perhaps account for the recent revival of the anthology series. Shows like American Crime Story, The Terror, and True Detective tell one self-contained story a year, but they run multiple seasons, the best of both worlds. (It’s no coincidence Bloys suggested an anthology approach to Watchmen as a possible compromise.)
Most art is constrained by commercial considerations, but television is uniquely shaped by the economic demands of its distribution. (Streaming offers the potential to break those formal constraints, even if it hasn’t consistently capitalized on that opportunity.) Even today, many series continue not because they have anything to say, but because they are too profitable to wrap up.
“Nothing ever ends,” boasts Doctor Manhattan in the final issue of Watchmen, a sentiment that Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) echoes in the television series. It is both a blessing and a curse, and a line that feels doubly fitting given the amount of spin-off and supplemental material that the original comic has created.
With Watchmen, Damon Lindelof got to construct a satisfying and self-contained narrative. Television has changed a great deal in the past couple of decades, but there is a lot to be said for a model of production that allows a great story to be enough in and of itself.