(Spoilers herein for the first two episodes of The Watch)
So, The Watch. The new adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork City Watch books, from within his Discworld universe - some of my favourite books.
I’ve always been willing to give this production the benefit of the doubt.
Apart from anything else ‘wah they changed it so it must suck’ takes are so, so boring. I’d much rather treat the adaptation as something interesting to engage with. At best I’ll love it and be interested to see where and how it succeds. At worst I won’t think it works but that will give me new insight into the source material’s working and qualities.
God knows there are enough simple, dull, awful moral outrages in the world to deal with without pretending earnest creative endeavours count as more.
And fair’s fair, we’ve had quite a number of faithful Pratchett adaptations now. I’m sorry for those who love the Ankh-Morpork City Watch books and have realised as pre-release information that this series doesn’t seem to be taking an approach that suits them, but they have had things to their taste before.
Discworld in particular has suffered from faithful adaptations. They’ve not all been bad but none of them has been great either.
Personally I think there’s only so good you can get a Discworld adaptation without fundamentally taking the source material apart and putting it together in a new way for a new medium. The books simply have a very literary soul: their spirit is in Pratchett’s narrative voice and that’s something that just doesn’t have an easy equivalent in screen storytelling.
Maybe it doesn’t have an equivalent at all; maybe Discworld fundamentally cannot be adapted for screen to a standard that truly honours the source material. I don’t know. Not all books are made to translate to every medium. But I am interested to see how a different approach from the ploddingly literal goes.
If any Discworld books are likely to work on screen, the AMCW books seem like good candidates.
An adaptation needs to have the quality of being accessible to a wide audience, for giving people a way in, something to engage with and care about quickly and reliably as a vehicle for all the other stuff that show wants to talk about. And the police procedural offers that. It’s actually getting a little hackneyed to use a procedural/crime investigation framework to hang a fantasy/SF series off. From The Expanse to Gotham to Penny Dreadful to Grimm and so on we’re beginning to get oversaturated with shows that employ such a framework. The Snowpiercer show even inserted its ‘world’s last detective has to solve a murder’ pretty last minute when it realised its show as a mess and needed a core. It's not always deployed with great finesse. Snowpiercer is one example where the framework gels oddly with he themes and morals of the franchise. With such frequent and often inappropriate deployment, the format is losing its power to hook a little.
Another newly emergent downside is that the proposition of cop shows has become seen a a more socially complex issue recently. Suddenly cop shows have been pushed away from comfortable neutral territory as a concept. There’s been a cultural shift under the social influence of BLM and some other social movements, and suddenly ‘cop show’ is not a neutral, handy story framework even to a general audience, but a concept that must be engaged with as a theme.
There’s much that’s both promising and challenging in the basic AMCW material, then. Five years ago I might have said the AMCW books represented the perfect opportunity for adaptation. These days I think they offer the material to be turned into something extremely good and timely (there's plenty int he books to lean into that directly speaks to the social concerns around policing so live right now), but their police procedural is less of an easy and straightforward benefit.
So… does The Watch make it work?
I don’t think there’s a single, simple answer. I think there’s a lot to love in The Watch, and that it handles some of the challenges with pleasing aplomb. But I also think it displays a couple of failings which may prove big enough to be fatal.
Both the series’ strengths and a lot of its weaknesses are in its invention. Discworld fans who haven’t liked the look of this developing adaptation have commonly loved to claim that the creators ‘clearly haven’t even read the books’. Always a convenient accusation for granting yourself, the book-reader, an imagined moral high-ground.
Of course the creators are incredibly well-versed in the books and it shows – rather too much, in fact.
But to the praise first:
There’s absolutely lovely work going on in terms of location and production design. I find it super fun to see the characters and stories remixed into something new. The Watch’s Ankh-Morpork is a stimulating reimagining of Pratchett’s city I’m keen to spend time in.
The cast and background artists show a diversity that it’s great to see. Yes, there have been failings too – that we’ve lost out on seeing a prominent and positive fat character with a thin (and younger) actor being cast as Lady Sybil, and that Cheery’s trans narrative being changed. But I think it would be missing the wood for the trees not to recognise that The Watch is an admirably diverse show, doing some interesting gender stuff, and not just casting actors of colour but pulling away from the standard Eurocentric aesthetic by using Cape Town as a base for Ankh-Morpork.
Production designer Simon Rogers works on that base to create a really unique, immersive and convincing world (at least where the writing and directing allow his work to shine, more on which presently). The show often uses quick cut-ins of set details like bill posters between scenes and we get to see some really gorgeous and hard-working graphic- and prop-design. No surprise really from the A Touch of Cloth guy.
All in all I’m pleased to see the series do something so divergent from the obvious touchstones, not just because I find it more personally interesting but also because there are now so many shows around which are in a similar key to the more obvious Watch aesthetic out there – whether they are high-fantasy, urban-fantasy, historical, pseudo-historical or whatever. The Discworld material is something special, but it’s easy to flatten all that careful and nuanced invention and layers of humour and thoughtfulness into something much more hack and boring. I’d hate an adaptation to park Discworld in the popular imagination as just another vaguely steampunkish show mainly of interest to nerdy fans that are easily impressed. I like that The Watch is being really ambitious and wild – that’s what Discworld deserves. Not to be just another show mucking about in the unimaginative hinterland of vaguely-steampunk or genero-urban-fantasy.
And when the stars align and the writing and direction work with the design it’s a thing of joy. Probably my favourite segment of either episode is the sequence in ep one where Vimes investigates a lead by visiting some of the imp-powered security cameras. The storytelling/worldbuilding is excellent here. It’s so neat and pacey without leaving our understanding or emotions behind. We meet the concept, get a funny little interaction, get another clue in the mystery, and get an emotional payoff really swiftly. I love the way all we need as Vimes approaches a second camera is a sound-design choice, a beeping sound to clue us in that the device is broken – setting up the emotional punch of the dead camera-imp. Vimes holding the little corpse is the most emotionally successful moment of the show so far.
The ‘feature’ locations are also beautifully designed and, just as importantly, lit. The Watch House has a lovely deco-brutalist look and in ep two the Unseen University library is simply gorgeous.
Costuming is great. It’s cohesive and yet like no aesthetic I can quite pin down. Each character expresses something individual in their look but all of them hang together to seem like they’re from the same world and in the Watch’s case, the same body
The effects work is… variable. From the CGI end of things, the noble dragon that appears in episode two is gorgeous (and its pocket-sized cousin Goodboy is also cute and convincing). I assume there’s a fair amount of computer work also going into enhancing practical sets and effects too: the fact that I don’t notice that means it’s doing its work well. From the practical-effects-end, I really like how Detritus looks. Spoilers: the character isn’t long for this series. But if that’s the template for the troll look I’m very happy with it.
Whether effects-led creatures and characters work is in the end not so much founded on the effects work itself, but the storytelling. Where I found the imp sequence very convincing, it’s not because there’s anything very sophisticated going into the creature effects at all. Rather it’s the direction and acting that bring the concept and characters to life. For comparison, over in His Dark Materials we have Framestore’s finest animation going into the creation of daemons (and Framestore are the house for lifelike animals an even humans). The daemons generally look incredible but they are often not remotely compelling or emotionally convincing. Trick shots and rubber puppets can be more convincing than the most impressive CGI if they’re what allows actors to do their work.
So I think where the character/creature-effects don’t convince it’s more telling and more interesting to consider the storytelling choices than the work itself. Good storytelling sells a potentially lacking effect or even the absence of effect. For example, the decision with Angua is not to show the transformation or wolf form itself but to focus on the grim aftermath of a wolf-turn. That might have been a budget decision but it works very well. It focuses us on the emotional story. A ‘why am I cursed with these awesome abilities?’ story can easily ring hollow, but the fact that instead of some awesome transformation/carnage sequence what the show lingers on is the truly unpleasant aftermath for Angua (waking up naked in a filthy gutter, throwing up what your wolf-self has eaten) means that the burden really comes across emotionally. It also makes the fact of Cheery finding her, bringing her clothes and cheering her up properly heartwarming. Like the imp-camera sequence, this is an instance where the show really manages to use its fantasy setting for impact.
… On the other end of the spectrum, though, there’s the Librarian. I think they’ve tried not precisely for ‘orangutan’ but more ‘human mutated to look a bit like an orangutan’ and I can’t say I think it works very well. Again, it’s not the effect itself but that the story leaves it exposed. The Librarian isn’t supported by good storytelling. His condition is attributed to the effects of a fantasy invention central to the episode – one that could have worked if only given more time. But between the fact his form feels like part of a hastily-gabbled bit of fantasy exposition for something that doesn’t in itself work very well, and the fact that he is given no time to demonstrate a particular personality which might charm us, the makeup job is left to fend for itself – and it doesn’t. It’s a valiant try for something different a different approach to the monkey suit one as seen in The Colour of Magic but I don’t think it manages to be a more successful one.
Then there’s goblins, which deserve their own brief consideration. We see a fair amount in these opening episodes of goblins. It’s not a race very present in Discworld, at least until the very late books, and they’re not really depicted here as they were there. Rather I suspect we’re seeing goblins used as a replacement for the role golems had in the books. If I’m right, my guess as to at least part of the reason for that is because an organic race like goblins are far easier to realise on screen than clay-people (again, the Sky One adaptations show how bad the rubber-suit approach can look)
So all in all I’ll be keeping an interested eye on how effects decisions seem to be interacting with storytelling choices.
The core problems
One of the major issues with The Watch is that it throws a huge amount of Stuff at us and fails to give us any relatable/understandable centre to all this madness. It really doesn’t have a cogent story and none of the characters provide enough of a sympathetic, accessible core to latch onto.
That’s true in the macro and to a large extent in the micro. There are individual beats and sequences that work extremely well (the examples I have given of Vimes’ investigating the imp-cameras in ep one, and in ep two of the aftermath of Angua’s transformation) but to a large extent the show fails to build into all the stuff it throws at you into anything like enough coherence to be terribly engaging.
When a show is as hectic as this, an obvious candidate for blame is the editing.
The show is certainly pretty choppy and seems nervous of relaxing into any one sequence. It makes things hard to follow, much less get drawn into when you are constantly having to change gear before the previous ideas have had a chance to play to any kind of natural resting-place.
The worst thing getting in at the editing stage is the massive overuse of flashbacks and cutaways. Vimes’ backstory needed exactly one scene. It gets loads. They constantly interrupt the story and emotional momentum of the present-day scenes and undermine themselves by repetition.
I’d say there isn’t a single flashback/cutaway moment which wouldn’t be better for being cut.
Before I praised the fact that in ep two Angua’s transformation is handled by not showing it itself but the aftermath, i.e. the part of the story which informs us about Angua’s character and emotionality. Sadly the same good instincts don’t hold elsewhere. When in ep one the Watch are sharing their backstories with one another, we should stay with them, on their emotional performance. The details are fantastical but the show should be focusing on the reality of the emotions to help draw us into these as characters. Instead we have these cutaways which don’t seem to know whether they’re playing for humour or pathos. Seeing Jo Eaton-Kent as Cheery describe her backstory of gender non-conformity is engaging and moving with a light touch. She describes her past with rueful humour that hints at a deeper well of feeling we're intrigued to think might get explored more later. Cutting away to a shot of a little bearded boy is just distancing and distracting and fills in images and details that are more effectively left to the imagination.
So there are certainly editing decisions that don’t do the show any favours. But there are more fundamental story issues than can have entered just at the editing stage.
For instance, let’s take the moment I found most tellingly frustrating: the scene in which Carrot meets Vimes. Carrot (a much more worldly and experienced character for the show than his book counterpart) has by now had a bit of a city tour from Angua and a couple of encounters with Guild law which have given him a clear sense of how A-M operates, so when Vimes appears and tells him to let his latest collar go, it should by rights be the moment we see the story getting into gear. This is the point where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object; where philosophy A meets philosophy B, thesis meets antithesis and the story is catalysed; where Vimes’ depressed complacency meets Carrot’s optimism and ability to back it up with personal power...
And Vimes and Carrot start talking – but within a line Vimes is distracted by something and Carrot’s dialogue is faded out.
It’s a terrible story decision and it’s not hack editing to blame; you can see in the shots this is just as the sequence was shot and, I guess, scripted.
So I think what were’ looking at is a faulty script compounded in its inefficacy by some editing decisions.
And sadly the result is a bit of a mess.
The Watch is a show that doesn’t seem to quite realise that not everything can be moving parts. The material of the AMCW books is inherently busy and complex as a premise but there’s much which could be used as an anchor point. I mentioned before that the very reason I think the AMCW books seem ripe for adaptation in possible contrast to some of the other Discworld books is that their ‘cop procedural’ core offers the kind of hook you need for material whose charm is in how sprawling, nuanced, rich and funny it is.
If fantasy and comedy are about being wild and inventive and unexpected that is why they also need to be predictable and tropey and accessible in other ways. You need to pick what you are going to keep simple and predictable around what you think it is important to make complex and unpredictable.
For example, those editing choices: in a busy story full of details one helpful thing you could do is keep the edits long and linear, following a single story for long stretches. Giving us a sense of predictability and allowing us to relax in the way the story was being told would allow for a lot of unpredictable content. But this show has busy cross-cutting between A- and B-stories as well as those flashbacks, meaning we’re trying to juggle our understanding of several developing chronologies as well as each of those being busy and full of fiddling detail.
A crime investigation story is so codified that you can bury it under a huge amount of stuff and still benefit from that sense of bedrock. You don’t even need people to necessarily follow the details of the mystery. We need the characters to be compelling, to be pursuing a basic goal we understand (who killed x? Can we bring them to justice?) and can root for, and to show a bit of flair in one way or another for that process.
Unfortunately The Watch doesn’t manage to tick those boxes, at least with any consistency.
In this show, the instigating mystery is wrapped up in Vimes’ personal backstory without immediately-obvious implications beyond that. So one way or another the show rests from the off on Vimes being a compelling character. So let’s take a look at the characters, starting with him.
The series signals the centring of Vimes by opening with a framing device which is a reliable way to position your main character in theory; to clue in your audience who you should be paying attention to and from what angle. Here, as the episode title hints, Vimes is confronting Death and must witness a replay of the events that have led to his apparent demise.
It works OK in practice too though it doesn’t really give us a clear enough steer on what to look out for with Vimes. And it would be really useful to be given a compelling reason to care about Vimes because the show has chosen a very extreme characterisation and we are in rather desperate need of a reason to want to watch this guy.
Vimes here seems a semi-lunatic shambles, physically and mentally barely together.
Again, I’m not interested in whether that’s a ‘valid’ portrayal. I’m interested in whether it works internal to this series.
It has every potential to. It’s a bold choice, but after all characters don’t have to have attractive personalities to be engaging. We can like hot messes, immoral people, mean and insulting jerks.
The most persuasive means for getting an audience to care about a protagonist are:
Making the character strongly motivated. We respond to characters who want something and are actively pursuing it. It’s relatively immaterial if we morally support what they want, we might even be rooting against them achieving that end, but we’re easily invested in characters pursuing a goal.
Making them competent. Again, we don’t need to morally support their actions to be engrossed in watching someone be good at something.
Having them demonstrate inner decency – the famous Save the Cat principle.
Making a/some immediately likable supporting characters show that they like and value your protagonist. E.g. in the Firefly pilot, the fact that the sweet Kaylee responds to Mal’s grumpiness with “I love my captain” and a peck on the cheek helps us not take Mal’s rougher edges too seriously.
Giving your character a much worse adversary as a foil that positions your guy as the comparatively good option.
Making your character sympathetic by making them the victim of unfairness and oppression.
Now some of those are more powerful tools than others and all have their down-sides. Like anything weight-bearing in fiction each approach comes with serious risks. The execution of each approach can easily tip into something more alienating than engaging. A ‘Save the Cat’ moment can be convincing but it can also be hard to pull off convincingly without seeming manipulative and hokey. Audiences will sympathise with a butt-monkey character but only so far before they become frustrated. If your character is only appealing as the alternative to something worse it’s a bit reactive. Etc.
For an example of what I mean let’s take Katniss from The Hunger Games. Katniss has a lot of potentially off-putting qualities as a character and has to serve in a narrative which makes her do not-likable things. But Collins ticks several of the above boxes neatly, so she works as a protagonist.
She loves and is kind to her little sister – Save the Cat. That sweet sister character adores her back – the Kaylee principle. Though a lot of readers won’t enjoy the thought of hunting animals, we do still like Katniss for the survivalist competence it shows. She’s the victim of an unfair system. From the off, the antagonists in her life are a lot more dislikeable than Katniss.
Coming back to Vimes, The Watch’s pilot pretty much lacks any of these principles being worked anywhere near hard enough to counterbalance the really out-there performance. I’ve no doubt Richard Dormer is having a ball with his outsized affect and in fairness the extremes are in the script too (introducing Vimes by his trying to piss on a dog is… a choice) but without any equally compelling reason to care about Vimes as we are given to find him off-putting he remains, well, off-putting.
He’s not a complete write-off. Dormer is capable actor though he is being allowed to go far too broad most of the time. He and Ralph Ineson manage to get a likable relationship with some genuine emotion to it out of the Vimes/Detritus dynamic despite the barriers.
Vimes comes closest to working in a sequence I have already mentioned, where Vimes devices to do some investigating and interacts with the imp-powered security cameras. We finally see notes that make the character engaging – he wants something and is pursuing it; he is being competent; he demonstrates humanity when he reacts to the murder of an imp with clear and well-acted emotion.
Unfortunately this is a short sequence which is interrupted by a factor which sadly is not going to go away any time soon: the series’ surprise worst character.
Yes, the adored character of the books is the series biggest single problem. This Sybil is a complete reinvention from the book character (and again, I’m taking as read the idea that this in itself is absolutely fine). But what they have invented really doesn’t do anything good for the series. Of the various problems, she’s honestly my biggest worry for the series ever really working and bedding in because of what she does to the rest of the show and how centrally placed she seems to be meaning those problems are going to remain firmly in place.
Her major problem, and one which emerges even more in episode two, is that she is far too dominating a presence to allow the show to work. Her presence shuts down Vimes as any kind of protagonist. If the show was on dangerous ground having such a shambles of a protagonist before, it gives up any chance of his leading by pairing him up with this character.
The show could accommodate such a powerful, well-equipped and smart character if some other factor limited her potential involvement. But she is not a bit player. She takes charge and more or less takes the lead role.
I didn’t find her very likable in herself, either. In theory she ticks some of the above-mentioned boxes for an engaging major character, being competent and strongly-motivated etc. But she’s way too confusing for any of it to work. It took me two watches to understand what was going on with the prison/re-education scenario within which Vimes was introduced to her and I still have no idea why the show invented such a confusing and cluttering idea. Perhaps this will come up more later but even if all that becomes an instrumental part of the plot it was a massive mistake to include this big piece of baffling clutter in the first episode.
She’s also way too competent. Though Vimes is himself not necessarily hugely likable himself, no one likes the secondary who swans in to tell the hero they’re shit and to do everything better. It’s not charming, it’s just a presence that craps over any sympathy and fun we might have been having before, and makes us wonder why this hyper-competent person is hanging around our protagonist/s if they’re so much better.
Sybil is a major undermining presence right at the heart of the show. In episode two she exits with the sense that she has a reason not to get too heavily involved with The Watch – some backstory to do with not trusting the law. I really hope this is a lead-in to her appearing less in future epsiodes because I’m honestly not sure the show (and especially Vimes as a character) can survive her effect.
I should add, though, that none of this is Lara Rossi’s fault who actually delivers her lines with charm and has good comedic timing in herself. It’s just the writing is so badly judged here.
Rounding out the three most protagonist-y characters, Carrot is a fair bit more successful. He retains his book-role as the newcomer and so he has a clearer line to follow making his scenes a less stressful watch as we understand the basic tensions at play.
This Carrot differs from book-Carrot in that he is neither particularly naïve nor a total rookie. He’s a transfer from his hometown police force rather than a novice, and while he might start out fairly naïve about the city, his innocence is just circumstantial, not a broader character trait. He soon sees what A-M is all about. The removal of book-Carrot’s brick wall of (apparently) clueless good will makes this a much more generic and less distinct figure, and a less powerful force, but perhaps the series could use a normie in its middle with so much going on.
The problems with Carrot’s character are more minor that those with Vimes and Sybil, and its not to do with changes exactly, but rather the in the book-stuff that is kept which really only makes sense for the book version of the character.
E.g. the series tries for a bit of sadness in a scene where Carrot finds a letter revealing that his father, not Vimes, requested Carrot's transfer to the A-M police. That would be a sad discovery for book-Carrot. But for this one, there’s nothing in his character for it to bounce of with any pathos. This isn’t an emotionally-naïve Carrot getting disillusioned about his father, Vimes, Ankh-Morpork or his own importance. He already has a clear-eyed understanding of all those factors.
Carrot’s backstory loses impact (which in Guards! Guards! had both humour and pathos) when the only other ‘dwarf’ we see also looks totally human in height and beardlessness. You have to wonder why a series wich is so cavalier with so much of the source material, has clung to stuff that doesn’t really work. Why not just dump the ‘dwarf’ part of Carrot’s backstory since it isn’t doing anything here?
Again, there’s that thing of keeping details from the book whether they contribute here or just clutter.
I’ve mentioned Detritus already and his few interactions with Vimes more or less cover his presence in the debut.
He works well. Detritus is a simple character and the show has the sense not to complicate that but let him play out as an accessible and enjoyable presence that the episode benefits from. And I like the effects work.
SPOILERS for episode two...
... but that’s all we’ll be getting of Detritus.
It’s not necessarily the worst decision to kill him off. On the one hand it’s a shame because he was a likable and fun and straightforward presence in a show which suffers from too many confused and off-putting ones. But on the other his death well placed to provide some strong motivation. In the end the storytelling is too inconsistent and unfocused to single out whether this moment constitutes and good or bad move.
Cheery is a similarly immediately likable and accessible presence, but she has more to do. Jo Eaton-Kent is so far the absolute MVP of The Watch; natural and likable, her performance investing Cheery with a sense of reality not all the actors match (due at least as much to writing as performance, of course).
I mentioned the benefit of having a ‘Kaylee’ in your series, and Cheery is a great one. Easton-Kent brings Cheery to life with such conviction that it breathes life into the characters she interacts with. The series perks up whenever she’s on screen.
Moreover, she also does a lot with her line delivery to guide us to the line of reality in the show. For example, when she mentions the “two goth ghosts that keep asking her to be a band” I get a clear sense of where the line sits between fantasy, whimsy and comedy. None of the other actors manage to so effectively communicate the reality of their character and world. It’s hard to believe this is only Eaton-Kent’s third screen job ever. She sells both her character and the wider world with the aplomb of a real veteran.
Angua is the weakest link of the Watch characters, not in her performance so much as her writing. She’s a bit of a one-note ‘cool badass with issues’ cliché. Cliches can work, but she’s not enabled to back up her loner cool-girl posturing by the script with any sense of intriguing mystery.
This series is desperate to spill everything up-front, and after a couple of moments of half-hearted ooh-what-could-her-dark-secret-be moments, the fact that Angua is a werewolf comes out early and flatly.
As I alluded to in discussing Vimes’ presentation, a major problem at play is a reluctance to commit to those parts of telling a story which might risk tripping into hokey or slow territory – but which are also necessary for telling an effective story.
Where emotions comes through it is despite and definitely not because of the frequent cutaways and flashbacks.
What this show needs most is weeding. The good stuff is mostly there, its just getting strangled and hidden amongst the weeds.
For instance I? think?? that Lady Sybil hits a bit of a turning point in her attitude to Vimes when he shows that he cares about a dead imp; but it’s a bit of a reach from me and based on my knowing that in the books Sybil is a character with a soft heart for the small creatures. If the clutter was cleared from her storyline, all that rubbish about keeping criminals in dungeons and stuff, there’d be more room for effective moments like that to flourish.
Or another example: there’s a bit where Carrot refers to one of the cells looking like a monster has escaped from it, Detritus immediately takes umbrage and squares up to him. I’m not sure if I’m meant to infer that this is Detritus’s sleeping-place, or wonder who it belongs to. Later it is shown that it is in fact Angua’s place of transformation. There’s the material of a great story-beat there. It just needs better planting for the payoff and, again, heavy weeding.
Considering how flipping difficult humour is, the show actually does remarkably well. Other adaptations have reproduced Pratchett’s page dialogue and turned lines (and even whole chunks) or his narration into dialogue and it hasn’t exactly been a consistently successful approach, (as William Hughes express well in his review for The A.V. Club: https://tv.avclub.com/the-watch-will-disappoint-discworld-fans-and-maybe-ever-1845891358)
There is of course a difference between writing for the page and writing for screen and never more so than with Pratchett. This is a man who uses orthography for character notes and humour.
And the effect in the past of importing his dialogue and prose wholesale has generally been to flatten what is sprightly and nuanced on the page into something more leaden in actors’ mouths.
The Watch, rather than try and directly import lines or even a style, instead has more of its own key or voice. It’s in sympathy with Pratchett’s voice but not imitative.
Its obviously hard to criticise comedy. If you found it funny, you found it funny – if you didn’t, you didn’t. I can tell you it properly made me laugh more than once and more impressively none of the funny lines landed with an embarrassing crunch for me.
That’s about the directing and editing as well as the script. One of the big gripes I had with Good Omens was how poorly the comedy was served in the directing and editing department. I felt that it was a bit of an insult to make a show like this without having any comedy experience or expertise in any of the chief creative roles.
Well, Craig Viveiros who directed both of these Watch episodes has no comedy experience either, and Meredith Leece has spent almost all her career so far on straight dramas. But for whatever reason they have much better instincts for timing than Good Omens demonstrated. Their work succeeds in supporting all the humour of the script and helping moments land with success, across a wide range of needs in that department.
That’s not to say there’s never any tonal wonk or that the humour works within the show all the time. There’s a bit of a lack of a confident or self-disciplined guiding hand taking charge there. Some jokes are left in because they’re funny which should have been taken out because they spoil the story.
E.g. there’s a moment in the scene with Throat where, just as that character denies having anything to do with the drug ‘slab’ the frame freezes and a caption with arrows points out all the slab that is literally at this moment being moved around in the background. It’s a funny gag in itself but it’s not really appropriate to the general tone of the show (which is not arch or fourth wall-nudging by nature) and it specifically undercuts the way that scene plays out. We should be led by the characters. In a mystery show of all things, we should be discovering things alongside the characters, not arch given the wink first.
Another bit that stood out to me as needing the chop was where Carrot’s mirror talks to him. That’s not a case of something being tonally off, it’s really an instance of something seeming a bit desperate and tripping itself up on its desperation to amuse and signal cynical irreverence all the time, rather than letting one scene flow into the next and character beats just play out.
The worst instance so far of a lack of discipline letting the jokes in even though they undermine more important stuff is in episode two. There’s a gag where Vimes makes a perfectly effective speech – and then carries on – and on – and on. Again, the show can’t seem to cope with just risking a moment being sincere for fear it might be mocked. I referenced Firefly already in this review, so I’ll go to that well again. I remember on the commentary track for Serenity Joss Whedon explaining why a certain scene where main character Mal got a little humiliated had needed to be cut from the final film. Whedon explained that though he really liked the moment in itself, in the film it stacked up with a couple of other moments where Mal was insulted or humiliated and started to undermine him as a character we rooted for and sympathised with.
That’s the kind of hard decision-making that needs to go on in The Watch’s writing and editing. A moment might be funny but this isn’t a sketch-show, it’s a story, and if they want the audience to care about Vimes it can’t keep consistently clowning on him like that.
I think it’s worth saying that comedy is hard and fantasy comedy is really hard. The Watch has a few slip-ups where jokes don’t work to support the story but generally manages to maintain a consistent entertaining tone, and that’s impressive. The Watch actually made me laugh where Good Omens and the Sky One adaptations never once did. Some of that is taste but there’s also just better comedy work going on – much better directing for comedic timing than previous Pratchett adaptations. Whatever else, I’m glad to see a Pratchett adaptation getting closer to honouring the fact that the man didn’t write wry, twee whimsy, he wrote proper comedy
All in all, I’m looking forward to seeing how the series progresses. If it ends up a failure, I consider it a noble failure. And its faults are not for a moment in its not being ‘faithful’. That’s its greatest strength.