BBC America's 'The Watch' Struggles With Adapting 'Discworld'

(Photo Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/BBCA)

A brand new police procedural arrived on TV at the top of 2021, The Watch, yet another entry into the endless crime-based shows, but there's a twist to those in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch's regular beat and their CSI-like day-to-day. Ankh-Morpork is the principal city of Discworld, Terry Pratchett's famous fantasy series of novels. Both the cops and the city are filled with magical creatures, from dwarves to dragons, and the crimes include time travel and misused magic. It's a little like Netflix's Bright from 2017, though, without attempting to take itself seriously or be a parable for tolerance. But unfortunately, instead of replacing those things with something interesting, it's not much about anything at all.

BBC America has struggled ever since it launched in the late 1990s. The channel is prevented from its most obvious route (air BBC shows in America) by the nature of how both the BBC and BBC Worldwide work. Since British taxpayers are supposed to have exclusive access to BBC programming, it can't just air those programs on BBC America willy nilly. There wasn't much competition from other channels for a while, and BBC America could bid on whatever it wanted. However, since the proliferation of streaming services, all of whom are hoping for new-to-you British programming to help fill out their schedule, BBC America has mainly lost out on the good stuff.

The response has been to make its programming, especially since being bought up by AMC Networks. Some have been hits, like Orphan Black and Killing Eve, Some have wished mightly to be hits, like Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Ripper Street. And some are best forgotten. The Watch is the latest attempt to create a Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell with more than one story to tell. But unless the series climbs out of the mess it's made of these early episodes; chances are it won't get another season to try it.

Pratchett was a prolific writer in his time; there are 41 Discworld books alone, and then another subset that focuses on the City Watch upon which this series is based. That's a lot to pull from, which is why it's so curious The Watch doesn't use the books.

The adventures in the early going are made up from whole cloth. Not that they are bad adventures, the time-traveling dragon opener is quite smart and introduces their patron Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi), and the second episode (which aired back to back with the first) is good world-building in setting up the different guilds and gangs the Watch encounter daily.

But it's Episode 3, "The What?" that probably will piss off fans of the books more than anything. The series takes the crew — Vimes (Richard Dormer), Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill), Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton-Kent), Corporal Angua (Marama Corlett), and Wonse (Bianca Simone Mannie) — and dresses them up like a punk band to infiltrate the musicians guild. It gives the main villain, Carcer Dun (Sam Adewunmi), a chance to laugh at them and the situation at hand. It's not that the scene isn't funny, but these are beloved characters who are serious figures in a satirical novel, not characters who readers expect to be the butt of the jokes.

The point the show is trying to make is obvious. We're going to piss the hardcore fans all off, so let's get it over with. Those who remain on the other side are the audience who gets what the TV series is trying to do. But the problem is it seems like the show isn't trying to do anything. Though Discworld makes loving fun of fantasy tropes, the series, especially The City Watch ones, explores magic versus tech and is far more into critiquing social mores and political assumptions in our world. It's not heavy-handed moralizing, but it is piercing satire.

The series refuses to bring that satire along with it, focusing more on the magical creatures themselves than what they stand for. This has been one of the significant failings of every attempt at Discworld adaptation. Part of it is that the books are deeply British in their political leanings, attitudes, and humor, and there's a fear that American audiences will not get it. But to take out that stuff means you're left with a relatively toothless story. The Watch wants to insist it's not doing that by chucking the books altogether as if that somehow makes it ok. But the same hollow center remains.

There are flashes of a better series hiding within this show if the production wanted to find it. And perhaps it will. But right now, Discworld continues to wait for someone to figure out how to adapt it properly.