Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This installment: The Wild Blue Yonder is back on TV!
The Tick began as an independent comic from writer Ben Edlund, a loving satire of comic book superheroes in which a mental patient in a blue… outfit? With antennae? Or maybe it’s his skin?… anyway, he escapes, then starts fighting evil with the help of an ex-accountant named Arthur sporting a moth suit of unclear origin. It then developed into its most popular iteration, a 90s Saturday morning cartoon show featuring a softer satire of superheroes, dropping the mental patient angle and the notion that most sidekicks are required to have full, pouting lips for reasons they’re not sure about. The Tick and Arthur, would-be champions, guarded The City with the help of a cadre of fellow misfit superheroes, taking on bizarre and wacky villains ranging from Chairface Chippendale (his head was a chair) to Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy (a vending machine with robot arms, a stetson, and a Russian accent) to everyone’s favourite, The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight. And one of the only villains to be imported from the comics, the 100+ year-old legacy villain the Terror (described by Tick as “One of the greatest villains of the 20th century! And parts of the 19th, I think.”)
Four years after the beloved cartoon ended, The Tick was adapted into a live-action comedy starring Patrick Warburton as the oversized would-be hero. The live-action version tried to bring back some of the edge of the comic version, while still being wacky superhero fun. Sadly it was short-lived, being sent to die as part of Fox’s futile attempt to bring down… what was it… whatever network shows were dominating Thursday nights in– 2001? Son of a bitch, time is a motherfu–
Anyway, now The Tick is back on television with a whole new take, thanks to Amazon Prime, with a 12-episode season that they dropped in two chunks, all of which is now available. And now we’re going to talk about it.
Short version: if you’re looking for the cartoon series brought to life, this is the wrong place. But The Tick show they’ve made worked out really damn well.
As a child, Arthur Everest saw his father die right in front of him… because when hyper-elderly supervillain the Terror (him again, this time played by the always impressive Jackie Earle Haley) nearly wiped out patriotic super-team the Flag Five, they crashed their ship onto Arthur’s dad. So young Arthur watched the Terror kill both his father and their city’s greatest heroes, after which the Terror strode up to him, gloated, and stole his ice cream. It’s a famous moment. Ended up on the cover of magazines.
Flash to the present, and Arthur is convinced that despite the world’s belief that the Terror was killed by the world’s first and greatest superhero, Superian, he’s still out there, still plotting. Arthur’s family, mostly his overprotective sister Dot (like Tick, Arthur, and the Terror, one of the four characters to appear in all four iterations of The Tick), thinks he’s dealing with mental illness in the wake of his childhood trauma. But Arthur gets unexpected support when the Tick, an immense blue superhero (now played by delightful British actor/Darth Maul voice Peter Serafinowicz) drops into his life. Superstrong and mostly invulnerable, the Tick claims to be taking his cues from destiny herself, and that part of destiny’s plan is that Arthur start wearing this experimental moth suit of unclear origin Tick just found while busting up an arms shipment Arthur was observing.
Arthur continues to search for the Terror while avoiding attacks from the Terror’s electric former henchwoman Miss Lint, dodging concern from Dot, dealing with his friendly but meandering stepdad, and managing a lumbering, somewhat clueless blue tank of a superhero. The Tick tries to guide Arthur to a heroic destiny, while also figuring who he himself is, what he is, where he came from, and why he gets a little fuzzy about his purpose when Arthur isn’t around.
Also Superian is dealing with a giant naked man known as the VLM (Very Large Man). That might be significant.
Fans of the cartoon should know… don’t expect to see any characters you know save for Tick, Arthur, the Terror, and Dot. Ben Edlund doesn’t own the rights to any characters created for the animated series, so no Die Fledermaus, Sewer Urchin, or American Maid. Nor their live-action counterparts from the Warburton series, Bat-Manuel and Captain Liberty (there is no way to make a version of Sewer Urchin that isn’t legally actionable). But the new supporting cast is pretty solid too.
In addition to Miss Lint and Superian, there’s Overkill, a rogue government agent turned murderous vigilante also hunting the Terror (Arthur’s description of their first meeting is priceless); Danger Boat, Overkill’s sentient aquatic headquarters, voiced by Alan Tudyk; Tinfoil Kevin, a surprisingly resourceful local homeless man; and Midnight, a talking dog that’s one of the only survivors of the Flag Five, voiced by Townsend Coleman, who provided the Tick himself his iconic voice in the animated series.
Those are players, how was the game?
One of the main writer/producers is the Tick creator himself, Ben Edlund, who’s been busy in the years since the last two Tick series writing fan-favourite episodes of shows like Supernatural (basically any meta-episode) and Angel (he wrote the classic puppet episode “Smile Time,” and here reuses the phrase “Wee Little Puppet Man”). Which is to say, under his supervision, the show has tons of wit and a lot of heart. Despite some dark themes in the first act (we’ll get to that), there’s consistent humour, and it’s never a drag to watch. And the back half just soars. There are amazing lines in nearly every episode, and nobody knows better than Edlund how to write a great Tick narration monolgue.
Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman, who plays Arthur, make a great duo. Arthur’s panic, anxiety, and confusion over what to do next bounce well off of Tick’s clueless confidence, which is punctuated only by the occasional burst of existential uncertaintly. Arthur’s lovable, and the Tick is hilarious, and you can’t help but root for them to work things out and triumph over evil.
The rest of the cast is great, too. That Jackie Earle Haley is amazing as the Terror should go without saying, but he brings a wonderful joviality to Terror’s schemes. Yara Martinez is terrific as Miss Lint, beginning to question if she’s hitched herself to the right evil wagon. Valorie Curry presents what I suspect to be the best version of Dot thus far, a derby girl/med student/black market paramedic that is able to pick up details as to what the Pyramid gang are up to by healing their various crime-wounds. Brendan Hines brings just the right level of smug celebrity to Superian (whose name I like as a nonsense hybrid of various Superman clone names) without falling too far into douche territory. Alan Tudyk is predictably entertaining as the voice of Danger Boat.
Overkill is an interesting addition, with his dark, gritty, surprisingly graphic, stab-happy style of justice colliding with Tick’s Adam West-ian crusade for Sweet Lady Justice (Tick feels Overkill may need “The Talk”). It’s a great juxtaposition that ends up being a better Punisher/Daredevil team-up than Netflix is ever going to deliver. Also Overkill has a fun chemistry with both Miss Lint and Dot, when despite Arthur’s protests she inevitably becomes more heavily involved in the hunt for the Terror.
It’s not a huge thing but I love how Arthur figured out that only he could see or hear the Tick right in time for Dot to point out that no, in fact, she can see him just fine, he definitely exists. They set up the “Tick is imaginary” reveal well, then swerved away charmingly.
The lampshade hang over Arthur noticing that Tick’s costume received an upgrade after the pilot was shot and their full-season budget rolled in was cute.
Plus they fit in two Easter-egg references to the battle cries Tick and Arthur developed in the classic animated episode (which introduced the Terror), “The Tick Vs. Arthur’s Bank Account.” For the Tick, the classically nonsensical “SPOON!” For Arthur, the less iconic (and shorter-lived) “Not in the face! Not in the face!” That delighted me, especially the less-expected second one.
You know it’s a little weird that so much of the first six episodes is devoted to exploring the very real mental issues brought on by Arthur’s horrific childhood trauma. It’s odd. It’s a darker take on Arthur’s origin than we’ve ever seen before, which was a key part in the tone being so drastically different from the two previous Tick series that it had me wondering who this radical departure from previous iterations was even for. People hoping for the exact sort of silly fun of the animated series, still the most popular version as far as I can tell, are in for a hell of a surprise.
Also, there’s way more swearing than I expected (limited mostly, if not entirely, to Overkill, which actually helps build the dichotomy of Overkill’s Punisher-style vigilantism vs Tick’s innocent, four-colour heroics). And you’ll catch some glimpses of VLM’s VL butt. And fair warning, VLM is not in shape.
But then you could also twist that into a strength, couldn’t you? This version of The Tick wastes no time trying to live or die on nostalgia. It doesn’t ask you to let it skate by on references to classic episodes (save for the odd Easter egg, like those battle cries I mentioned), and is aware that everyone who watched the cartoon as a kid either grew up or is being shown the DVDs by fans who grew up. So they’re doing their own, more grown-up thing. And if anyone’s going to reinvent the Tick for the current state of the superhero genre, nobody’s gonna be better at it than Ben Edlund.
Hmm. I’m kind of spinning the weakness into strengths, aren’t I. Let’s see…
Well, Arthur’s attempts to flee from Destiny and not wear his iconic moth suit surely did stretch on an episode or two longer than I would have liked. It basically took the entire first half for Arthur to accept heroism, which was a really great moment, but it wasn’t until right before the mid-season break, aw damn it that made it a perfect end-point before hiatus, I can’t even criticize this show…
That whole thing about Miss Lint being forced to share a condo with her ex got dropped pretty hard in the second half. I’d have to rewatch the series as a whole but it’s possible I could have used a little more of that? Also the Terror having an Alexa was kind of blatant as product placement goes.
And they came so close to including Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy. One cowboy hat. All it would have taken.
Can I just say “Episodes seven through twelve?” Or to put it another way, who among you thinks you can stop me from saying “Episodes seven through twelve?” Because I’m not sure I can whittle it down further.
Ummm… hmm… well… maybe… “Secret Identity?” Arthur loses the suit, that was more of a setback than I wanted three episodes in.
There are a lot of talented people doing a lot of good work here, but it has to be Peter Serafinowicz. Townsend Coleman and Patrick Warburton were tough acts to follow in this role, but he’s nailing it with every single line. He’s called this “the best job [he’s] ever had,” and he’s making the most of it.
Tips For Next Season
This is gonna be tricky. But let’s see…
Really now… exactly how jealously is Fox guarding the rights to Chairface Chippendale? Could we at least have the scene from the comics where Tick tries to throw a sinister monolith into space? That’s a classic.
Honestly, though, just do this again and we’re probably fine.
Overall Grade: A
I finished it yesterday and I’m just about ready to rewatch the whole thing.
Until next time, remember… never let your sister talk you into the “normal” thing.