HBO has to think hard before making another season of “Watchmen”

Decisions, decisions.
Decisions, decisions.
Image: HBO
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By all measures, Watchmen was a big success.

The superhero drama, which ended its nine-episode debut season on Dec. 15, was HBO’s most-watched new series since Big Little Lies in 2017, the network said. It was also the most popular premium cable show of the year.

Viewership for its final three episodes ended on a clear upward trajectory, suggesting the series was helped by strong word-of-mouth. The finale and the penultimate installment were the two most-watched episodes of the season:

HBO says live viewers, represented in the chart above, account for just 10% of the show’s overall audience. In total, Watchmen averaged about 7 million viewers per episode, including re-runs and streaming views. That’s not as much as the first season of Game of Thrones, which was watched by about 10 million viewers per episode (its final season averaged more than four times that, per installment), but it’s substantially more than the 4 million who watched each episode of Succession earlier this year.

Watchmen was a hit with critics, too. The series boasts a rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and appeared on numerous year-end top 10 lists—and even some “best of the decade” lists, despite airing only one season so far. It’s already earned four Critics Choice Awards nominations, two Writers Guild of America Awards nominations, and a Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination.

Everything is pointing to a second season. So what’s HBO waiting for? Why hasn’t it renewed the hit drama?

Ninety-nine times out of 100, a network would have announced a second season by now for a show this successful. But the nature of this Watchmen adaptation is unique. It was conceived and written by producer and showrunner Damon Lindelof and his team of writers as a self-contained story, with no expectation that there’d be future seasons.

Lindelof has said plainly in interviews the writers threw all of their good ideas into this season and don’t (yet) have a compelling reason, as storytellers, to continue the show. Like the Alan Moore comics on which it was based, the HBO series had a pretty definitive beginning, middle, and end. While the ending is a bit ambiguous (a Lindelof staple), it’s hardly a cliffhanger that demands further explanation.

“I am deeply, profoundly appreciative for how well received the season has been up until now, and I don’t want to feel like I’m ungrateful, but I still don’t have any inclination whatsoever to continue the story,” Lindelof told Variety in an interview last week. In a more recent interview with Variety, Lindelof slightly amended his stance, saying he and HBO will sit down soon to discuss if the show should continue, and, if so, how.

Ideally, HBO wants more Watchmen with Lindelof in charge. If he’s not interested, then the network will likely move ahead without him. And with so much competition for eyeballs, it would almost be business malpractice for HBO to walk away from a series that’s proven to be such a hit with fans and critics, even if the smart creative decision would be to allow this one season to stand alone, and not risk damaging its legacy. HBO was in a similar situation following the first season of Big Little Lies. It decided to make a second season, which was not received nearly as warmly as the first.

And for HBO, which is not beholden to advertisers (and thus cares less about normal TV ratings than broadcast networks), that critical reception matters as much as the number of viewers. Watchmen may have had a large audience for a premium cable drama, but it pales in comparison to a show like NCIS on CBS, whose most recent episode was watched live by more than 11 million people.

Complicating matters further is HBO’s new corporate ownership. AT&T, its parent company, has indicated it wants more content out of HBO. The network’s executives may feel more pressure to deliver, particularly since it now has a bonafide hit. AT&T likely wants to populate its upcoming streaming service, HBO Max, with as many shows possible.

So HBO has a lot more to consider than only the economics. If it’s going to make more Watchmen, it needs to be good, not just popular. If the network has to move forward with a different creative team in order make a second season of Watchmen, what should be an easy decision may become a huge risk.