Sunday, September 10, 2017

Amazon's The Tick: Bigger, Bluer, Darker

Peter Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman in The Tick.

“Evil wears every possible mitten.” – The Tick
Ben Edlund’s “big blue bug” is back. Last seen in the very short-lived Fox live-action series back in 2001, The Tick is currently enjoying its third small-screen adaptation, proving the old adage that like Sherlock Holmes and Pride and Prejudice, every decade gets a Tick to call its own. The new series, created by Edlund, premiered on Amazon Video on August 25 with half of the 12-episode first season With a darker vision, bigger budget, and richer narrative canvas, Amazon’s The Tick fits more comfortably into our current television universe than either the still-classic 1994 Fox animated series or the ill-fated Patrick Warburton-helmed 2001 sitcom, but it also comes with enough of its signature energy to be a welcome new arrival.

The ‘90s animated series (also called The Tick) was a masterpiece of cartoon absurdity. It ran for three seasons and 36 episodes and brought an adult self-awareness, internal continuity and an arch satirical voice to Saturday morning cartoons that was way ahead of its time. And even now, more than two decades later, I find myself laughing out loud when scenes from that series pop into my head. (I dare you to recall The Living Doll’s battle cry, “I'm full of tinier men!," without an involuntary chuckle.) Whereas the cartoon introduced viewers to dozens of characters – heroes and villains and everyone in between  – Edlund’s new series has wisely narrowed its focus to our two main characters and has (so far at least) restrained itself to a smaller ensemble of heroes and anti-heroes.

This time around Tick is played with full-chinned glory by Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Serafinowicz, with comedian Griffin Newman as his nebbish sidekick, Arthur. Tick remains the same big-hearted, thick-skulled lug he’s always been (“nigh invulnerable” with the strength of a “crowded bus stop . . . of men,”), but Serafinowicz imbues him with an emotional intelligence that no incarnation of the character (on print or screen) has had before. (Warburton, with his signature voice, was the best thing about the 2001 series, but his Tick was as socially clueless as he was physically clumsy.) Serafinowicz’s Tick is as simplistically idealistic – his worldview is sharply divided into friend and foe, good and evil, light and darkness – but he’s also much more than a big blue bull in the china shop of Arthur’s life. He truly is what Arthur needs, and soon enough both know it.

A few recent shows have laid the groundwork for The Tick’s return: aside from Joss Whedon’s Tick-inspired Dr. Horrible and the tragically underseen The Middleman (both from 2008), in the past couple of years we’ve also had the more mainstream BBC America/Netflix’s new Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency adaptation (whose second season begins in October) and Playstation’s camp, violent, and borderline pornographic original series Powers (which ran for two seasons until cancelled last summer), the latter of which Edlund himself worked on. As in Powers, the complicated everyday lives of superheroes – with its unique, and sometimes toxic, mixture of self-sacrifice, celebrity, and delusion – is woven into The Tick’s story. And as in Gently, which also tells a story about a hapless loner (there played by Elijah Wood) whose life is turned inside out by the arrival of a clumsy, relentlessly chipper “hero” with destiny and justice on his mind, the main character of The Tick isn’t really its eponymous hero, but Arthur himself.

Berto Colon and Yara Martinez in The Tick.

Griffin Newman’s Arthur, still the small, bespectacled accountant who reluctantly dons a flying moth suit to fight crime alongside Tick that fans have come to expect, is broken and lost when Tick lumbers into his life – having been directly traumatized by the very event that, 15 years earlier, left The City without heroes to defend it. Enter The Tick: a hero without a city for a city without a hero. The plot may have a clear protagonist and antagonist – Tick versus the septuagenarian villain, The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley) – but the story itself really takes place a level below: with Arthur and, to a surprising degree, with the villainous Miss Lint (played with noteworthy empathy by Jane the Virgin’s Yara Martinez), who emerges as a central character in her own right by mid-season. The result is a more psychologically nuanced, and far darker, Tick than we’ve seen before – a story of a man’s difficult journey from victimhood and fear to becoming a fledgling hero and agent of his own fate (or “Destiny!,” as Tick regularly proclaims).

Regular moments of tender humanity – between Tick and Arthur, and between Lint and her evil father-figure Terror – sit comfortably alongside more familiar Tick tropes, like Tick’s tendency towards lengthy alliterative, metaphor-laden rooftop monologuing and a meta self-awareness, evidenced in the second episode’s passing shout-out to the sudden and inexplicable changes in Tick’s appearance since last year’s pilot episode (the series wisely made Tick bluer and much chinnier), chronologically only minutes earlier. (Arthur: “Did you, uh . . . You look kind of . . . different.” Tick: “Thanks!”) The more ambitious themes notwithstanding, The Tick is still rife with quirky details of a superhero’s or supervillain’s life – e.g. the statically-inclined Miss Lint and her man-bunned, kombucha-drinking live-in ex Derek; or the hardboiled Punisher-type vigilante named Overkill (Scott Speiser) who comes along with a sentient houseboat – part Alfred, part annoying roommate, voiced by the inimitable Alan Tudyk – but I don’t expect we’ll be seeing Chairface Chippendale or Man-Eating Cow any time soon.

The Tick has fleshed out a universe with room to grow. Not least is Tick’s backstory, which remains tantalizingly unwritten, and unknown even to Tick himself. With its smart wordplay (Tick has the vocabulary of a doctoral candidate and the attention span of a 5-year-old), outsize villains, new emotional maturity, and wry but upbeat outlook, there is a lot to delight in The Tick. It all adds up to a series that succeeds in being sharp and accessible, leaving the thankless shadows of "cult" favourites behind. In this post-Deadpool world, meta-superhero stories are not the novelty they used to be –  but considering the poor fates of previous attempts, 2017 just might be the right time for The Tick and Arthur.

The first six episodes of The Tick's first season are currently available for streaming on Amazon Video. The season's final six episodes are slated for release in early 2018.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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