The amount of literary content German authors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were able to publish during the early to mid-19th century has given Hollywood a seemingly bottomless trove of imaginative narratives to pull from. Inspiration from these more than 200 fairy tales was used, for example, to produce six seasons of the NBC fantasy police procedural “Grimm.”
A prolific writer himself, late English novelist and satirist Terry Pratchett may not be as referenced in the mainstream film and TV industry as much as the Brothers Grimm, but with 41 books in his flat-planet “Discworld” series alone, there’s plenty for BBC America to borrow and re-envision, including its own fantasy cop show, “The Watch.” As a cyberpunk interpretation of Pratchett’s original text, however, the new series likely won’t create many more fans of mythical storytelling. In fact, the show’s generic worldbuilding, one-dimensional characterizations and lack of consistent wit will disappoint the kind of niche audience it’s trying to attract.
Adapted from the “City Watch” books of Pratchett’s “Discworld” series, “The Watch” is set in the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork where a motley crew (think “Guardians of the Galaxy” with badges) patrol the streets and do the bare minimum of actual police work.
Captain Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) was supposed to become a great cop, but “20 years, 9,321 bottles of booze [and] 68,240 brain cells later,” the job has made the officer a bit of a barbarian (he looks like he’s straight from the lower decks of the Black Pearl). Now, a jaded Sam oversees a local precinct that doesn’t do much in a city that has legalized some crimes. For instance, it allows thieves to steal if they belong to the “thieves guild” and murderers to, well, murder people if they are part of the “assassins guild”—as long as they stay within their quota.
For cops, “it’s a good gig to lay low,” as werewolf Corporal Angua (Marama Corlett) tells the newest recruit, idealist Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill), on his first day. Alongside Sam, Angua and Carrot, the City Watch roster is also comprised of Constable Cheery (Joe Eaton-Kent), a non-binary dwarf and forensics expert, and Sergeant Detritus (voiced by Ralph Ineson), a troll who could be a second cousin of the Thing from “The Fantastic Four.”
Each of the first five episodes the BBC made available for review (the first season contains eight episodes) is tied to the return of Carcer Dun (Samuel Adewunmi), a former friend of Sam whom he believed he saw fall to his death years prior. With two murdered alchemists on their hands, Sam and his team of misfits, as well as ally Lady Sybil (Lara Rossi), begin investigating the bizarre events that have started taking place since Carcer’s resurrection. This includes the theft of a powerful book that could destroy the entire city and the search for a mysterious sword that can control dragons.
For American viewers who might be unfamiliar with Pratchett’s books, the easiest and most recent comparison to make would be Will Smith’s 2017 urban fantasy cop flick “Bright,” which took itself entirely too seriously for a story about elves and orcs. “The Watch” seemed to be designed to deliver the playful wink needed to work as a satisfying, offbeat adventure, but even with whimsical elements like wizards, goblins and potions, the TV series is a tonal mess and has failed to take a beloved franchise and transform it into inspired entertainment.
Whether superfans of Pratchett’s work will say the show captures the same spirit of the source material or not (Pratchett’s daughter has stated that the BBC’s version “shares no DNA with my father’s ‘Watch’”), viewers who are already invested in the characters will probably find the debut season doesn’t come close to the magic of the Discworld they know. For new audiences, the series will introduce them to otherworldly beings that could easily be dropped into a police lineup arranged by J. R. R. Tolkien. “The Watch” may have its cynicism mastered, but smart sarcasm and humor seem to have fallen off the face of Pratchett’s earth.
“The Watch” premieres on BBC America Jan. 3.