TV Shows Pop Culture

BBC’s new “City Watch” is a confusing show, with its ups and downs

Sir Terry Pratchett’s City Watch series is one of his most successful, within the larger Discworld universe. The series revolves around the city of Ankh-Morpok, Discworld’s largest city, and the small police force within. The City Watch is comprised of an ex-alcoholic captain, a starry-eyed constable, a sergeant who’s a werewolf, and a forensic scientist who’s a dwarf, but different from the rest. This colorful medley is the reason why I love this series and its characters, particularly Captain Sam Vimes. 

City Watch’s popularity also garnered a BBC adaptation, one that’s taken inspiration from the characters, rather than creating a series that closely matches the books. This is a stark contrast to the earlier Discworld adaptations that stayed true to the source text. The first season – releasing today – introduces the City Watch – including Captain Vimes (played by Game of Thrones’Richard Dormer), a surly, goofy alcoholic, as well as Sergeant Angua Von Uberwald (Marama Corlett), a rough, tough woman who hides a chilling secret, Sergeant Detritus (voiced by Ralph Ineson) who is a literal troll, and Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton-Kent), a nonbinary forensics expert.

In a city where crime is now legalized in the form of Guilds – with a guild for everything, from Assassins to Thieves to Seamstresses – the City Watch is reduced to almost nothing, powerless and trapped behind red tape. The first episode starts with Carrot Ironfoundersson (played by Adam Hugill) joining the City Watch as its newest member, just as a figure from Vimes’ past, Carcer Dun, brings a dragon to destroy the city. We also see Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi) enter the picture, an aristocrat vigilante. 

The adaptation distances itself from the novels, defining itself as ‘inspired’ from Sir Pratchett’s work.

The adaptation distances itself from the novels, defining itself as ‘inspired’ from Sir Pratchett’s work. The decision initially garnered some concern from fans, who were afraid that this would distance people from the City Watch series. The series departs almost completely from the novels, combining a multitude of plots that honestly felt quite jarring. It almost seems as though the creators were unsure if there was to be more than one season and shoved all the important characters from the entire series into one heady jumble. 

What bothered me was how disconnected the watch seems to be from the city, and how disconnected the city is as a whole. What I admired about the novels was that Ankh-Morpok, though thriving with diversity, could still come together as a community. It was this community that the City Watch aimed to protect, it’s what motivated their actions. In the show, it isn’t really evident, so their actions seem random and disconnected. 

Another thing that I couldn’t come to terms with was how Carcer Dun was depicted. Rather than being portrayed as a cunning sociopath, Carcer seems like he’s out-of-touch with what’s happening around him – a mere puppet to larger forces at hand. It removes his prowess as a villain and makes him seem unimportant. His ‘sidekick’, Wonse, has a far better motive for power than Carcer. In fact, she even gets more screentime, with Carcer having less dialogue or screentime than other characters. 

Vimes, on the other hand, is a goofball, an alcoholic who has lost his sense of purpose and relies on others to guide him. Despite him trying to stand up and accept his responsibility, he is knocked down a peg at almost every turn. 

BBC’s City Watch isn’t meant to be approached as an adaptation, because that’s where most of its flaws lie. It’s difficult to try and emulate Sir Pratchett’s sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek yet poignant tones, particularly on a different medium. The show switches between being silly and being meaningful and careens too wildly on either side.

The show’s comedic relief – where Carcer’s hired goblins discuss Marx – feels forced, and the show’s more poignant moments – when Vimes discusses his ‘socioeconomic theory of boots’ Lady Sybil mocks the moment. It’s an odd disposition of Pratchett’s poignancy with humor, and it doesn’t sit well. What’s meant to be a reference to the works ends up being an awkward moment on-screen.

However, as a stand-alone series, City Watch does have its good moments. Lady Sybil is a certified badass, and they all work well as a team. I particularly love Lord Vetinari, who’s played by Anna Chancellor, and does an incredible job of portraying the powerful, calm, cunning lord patrician. Each character plays off the other well, and the dynamic between each character is fleshed out. Each relationship is focused on, and the audience gets to see the group grow as a whole, with individuals growing more mature, as well. It’s why I enjoyed watching the show – though the plot may be flawed, the characters keep the momentum going. 

For what it’s worth, this review comes from a hyperactive fan who’s fallen in love with the Discworld series and wanted this adaptation to be faithful to the source material and do it justice. As an adaptation, I’m not particularly moved. As a show, in and of itself? It was intriguing, but personally, I didn’t find it riveting enough to recommend it to other book fans. For those who are curious after watching the premiere, I’d suggest giving it a go, for the characters if not for the story itself.

City Watch premieres on BBC America on January 3rd.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!