Some fans of the late Sir Terry Pratchett were not happy when BBC America released the first images from The Watch. They didn’t think the show looked anything like his Discworld novels the series is based on. Since then, subsequent trailers and clips have produced additional unrest on social media. Clearly the show is very different from the books. As a non-Discworld-reader, I can only judge it by what I see on my screen. And what I’ve seen through five episodes of The Watch is a funny, exciting, heartfelt fantasy action-comedy that features plenty of mystery, lots of laughs, and a fantastic cast.
The Watch follows the “unlikely group of misfits” known as The City Watch. They are the small, seemingly useless police force in Ankh-Morpork, a place full of magic, wizards, trolls, and more. It’s also a place where most “crime” in the city is not only legal, but the basis for society. There are official guilds for everything, including assassins and thieves. Being a guild member makes you immune from retribution or jail time. One of the few things it’s illegal to do in town is arrest or harm guild members. Even the non-criminal ones like the Musicians Guild.
That mixture of fantasy with a gritty, rundown urban center is a fun sandbox to play in. And the show has a good time bringing us through the many different places of Ankh-Morpork, located, according to a title card, “somewhere in distant secondhand dimension.” You never know who or what you’ll meet around every corner or how strange that corner will be. And the strangest tend to be the most fun and interesting.
The legalization of crime has left the City Watch with almost nothing to do. That’s partly why its captain, Sam Vimes (Game of Thrones‘ Richard Dormer), has become a joke in the city. He has little authority and spends most of his time completely drunk. But Vimes and his team must spring into action when an old friend-turned-enemy unexpectedly shows up and unleashes an ancient dragon on the city. To stop him, Vimes and co. have to deal with dangers both deadly and ridiculous, using skills they didn’t even realize they had. The crew is just capable enough to do good police work, but dumb enough to make mistakes; thus, they feel grounded even in a fantasy setting.
The City Watch members themselves are what make the show so much fun. Vimes is a well-meaning goof who grows more likable as you get to know him and see him in action. His memory isn’t very good, but his moral compass never wavers, even when his mind does. Without Dormer’s endearing buffoonery, the series wouldn’t work. His fully formed, fully committed performance is exactly the anchor the show needs.
The rest of his crew is also as likable, which makes spending time with them a big part of the fun. Adam Hugill’s naive but well-meaning Carrot is an eager young upstart with the chops to get things done. Marama Corlett’s Angua has a dangerous secret that makes her seem like a tough nut to crack. Literally, she’s tough and can take on men three times her diminutive size. She’s also a good person who will be a fan favorite. And Jo Eaton-Kent’s delightful Cheery is a forensics expert who also makes the team feel more like a family.
They’re all very different, which creates some great, natural moments of humor and character building. But they all share one important trait: questions of identity. The very tall Carrot was raised by dwarves. Angua is not wholly human. And Cheery is a trans woman who is fully accepted by her fellow officers, but who also still has some scars and issues. The theme of identity and acceptance, both by others and ourselves, are an important part of many characters’ stories.
The Watch also features lots of great performances in smaller roles. That includes its always funny Marxist goblins who can’t quite figure out if they want to lead a worker’s revolution or not. The show boasts two incredible voice roles: There’s a sardonic, lonely, hilarious version of Death played by The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce. And What We Do in the Shadows‘ Matt Berry brings to life a magical talking sword named Wayne. But the true breakout star of the series is Lara Rossi’s Lady Sybil Ramkin. “The last scion of nobility” has personal reasons for hating the legalization of crime. Years of training and animosity makes her a formidable opponent, even when she’s an ally. She joins Vimes and the Watch on their quest, but has her own thoughts on what they should really be doing and how.
Rossi’s performance exemplifies why the show works. She’s serious but hysterical, silly but earnest. You both respect and believe what she’s doing, even while she’s making you laugh. In any episode she can be the funniest character, kick someone’s teeth in, and make you feel real pathos. She matches the tone the show is going for, which is fun, absurd entertainment blended with genuine fantasy and an intriguing story about outsiders trying to exist in a complicated world.
On some occasions, it felt like the show wavered too far in one direction—either overly ridiculous or overly serious. But it always finds its way back to that nice sweet spot. The “worst” episode is probably the first; get through the first 20 minutes and you’ll be fine. It’s almost like they filmed the pilot without actually settling on what it wanted to be, then realized midway through. Vimes drove me up a wall when I first met him, but quickly became one of my favorite parts of the show.
Other issues include the villain, Carcer Dun (Samuel Adewunmi), who feels like he’s on a different series entirely—for instance, Carnival Row. As someone who likes both shows, that’s not a good thing. Carnival Row is a fantasy drama, not a comedy. I wish Adewunmi was having as much fun as everyone else. Certain magical elements and shadowy characters can be confusing (especially without closed captioning). But ultimately. the biggest plot points are clear enough. So I let myself relish all the fun and intrigue. That approach enhanced my enjoyment.
I don’t know if that will be possible for book readers. But if you can accept that this is not Discworld novels come to life, you will find an enjoyable, funny series full of heart that takes place in an interesting place with characters worth caring about. That sounds like a Terry Pratchett story to me, and those are always worth your time.
The Watch premieres on BBC America with two episodes on Sunday, January 3 at 8pm ET/PT.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.