Growing up in the mountains, my TV had an antenna that only picked up the local NBC affiliate (and my town was too small for anyone to bother extending cable access out there). So I missed the original cartoon adaptation of The Tick when it aired in the ’90s on Fox. By the time the live action version launched in 2001 with Patrick Warburton playing the big blue guy, I was probably too busy starting college to watch anything that wasn’t Buffy — and considering how short-lived that series was, I don’t think I was alone in missing it the first time around.
So when I started hearing about the latest attempt to breathe life into The Tick, courtesy of Amazon, I was intrigued. Not out of nostalgia, or even any real familiarity with the material. I was mostly interested to finally see what all the fuss was about. What was it about the concept of The Tick that makes it worthy of so many attempts at adaptation? How did a goofy little superhero parody, created as a mascot for a local comic store by an 18-year-old cartoonist in Massachusetts, go on to survive so many iterations over the course of 30 years?
I was also interested in seeing Peter Serafinowicz clown around in a ridiculous blue suit. I’m only human, after all.
The key, I think, lies with creator Ben Edlund. He’s been involved with every version of The Tick, though the cartoon and the first live action version were early in his career. He’s since worked as a writer and producer on hardcore nerd-cred shows like Firefly, Angel, and Supernatural. And with this new opportunity, it seems he was given the chance to create his own vision of what a Tick show could and should be. While he has grown professionally, so has the pop culture landscape — and particularly the intersection of comic books, superheroes, and television. Though I may have missed out on the earlier iterations, I’ve since revisited them in bits and pieces, and what jumps out is that no two versions are the same. Sure, they all feature The Tick and his accountant-turned-sidekick Arthur (who sports a moth-like costume). But the villains, the supporting characters, even the origins of our heroes change to match the times.
And this Amazon series is very much a version born of our current glut of superhero media. It’s still silly and absurd, but there is a darker undercurrent to the narrative that may surprise longtime fans. And though “The City” it takes place in is never named, in this iteration it’s clearly New York City. The Tick may be the titular hero, and it may be his enthusiastic voice that provides the narration, but the series really kicks off with Arthur (Griffin Newman) and his unique backstory. He is our point of entry, and it’s his journey we follow before we ever meet The Tick. He’s still an accountant, but he is also mentally unstable, with a history of paranoia and delusions. He may even see things that aren’t there. Which leads to an extended question of whether The Tick, when he does arrive, is even a real character or if he’s just a figment of Arthur’s imagination. The series plays with this question longer than it needs to, perhaps, but in doing so provides a surprisingly nuanced look at mental health (and its impact on loved ones)
The thing is, whatever Arthur’s issues were in the past, he’s actually on to something now. As a child, he witnessed his father die underneath the jet of a Justice League-esque team of costumed crimefighters, who in turn died in front of him at the hands of a monstrously casual villain named The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley). And then The Terror sauntered over to Arthur and slurped his melting ice cream, because no evil act is too petty for The Terror. Though the villain supposedly was destroyed shortly thereafter by a hero named Superian (basically Superman, but with laser eyes that can convert shitty coffee into pumpkin spice lattes), Arthur can’t let go of his past trauma and still believes The Terror is alive and hiding, pulling the strings of the criminal underworld like some over-the-top Moriarty. He’s got a wall full of research to prove it, with string lines criss-crossing it and everything.
His journey for more proof leads him to a loading dock, where Ms. Lint (Yara Martinez) and her crew are unloading a mysterious moth-shaped super-suit… and right into the path of The Tick, who takes a shine to Arthur’s brainy know-how immediately. By devoting all of that time to developing Arthur’s journey, it allows The Tick to enter the story midstream without any of that origin story nonsense that plagues so many other superhero adaptations. In fact, The Tick doesn’t even know his own origin. He’s got no memory of his past beyond a few days ago, and if he has a home he can’t remember where it is. But he’s still got his childish optimism, his faith in Destiny with a capital “D,” super strength, and an indestructible hide (as long as nobody touches his antennae). While Arthur has his traumatic backstory to give him a quest, he doesn’t have the urge to be a hero — he’d rather get the proof that The Terror is still alive, and then hand it off to the authorities. He spends much of these initial six episodes (the first half of Season 1, with back end of the season scheduled to drop later this fall) being dragged kicking and screaming into his own hero’s journey by The Tick. And The Tick, though he has a full range of super-powered skills at his disposal, doesn’t have an aim. He wants to help people, but needs Arthur to point him in the right direction.
What makes The Tick unique, however, is his deeply ingrained belief in heroism by mostly nonviolent means. Sure, plenty of henchmen get injured, usually by their own bullets ricocheting off The Tick’s chest. In terms of actions The Tick takes against bad guys himself, it generally involves deceptively strong backhanded swats to knock them down, or that one time he chucked a tire at a guy to keep him from getting away. This is thrown into sharp relief when Overkill (Scott Speiser) joins the story. He’s a character created from the Punisher/vigilante mold of stab first, ask questions later. And The Tick doesn’t approve of his methods one bit, even attempting to lecture Arthur when he mistakes an alley full of Overkill’s victims as the handiwork of his new chum.
There is a specificity to every character that elevates them above being just another satire or pastiche of the genre. Even Ms. Lint, as The Terror’s former lieutenant who believes he is dead, is a fascinating remix of the evil hard-ass right-hand woman. Her electro-static powers draw debris to her body, earning her the nickname “Ms. Lint,” which The Terror then encouraged her to own. Since his “death,” Lint has become a lackey to an Egyptian-themed criminal boss, all while sharing her evil lair with her hippie ex-husband Derek (Bryan Greenberg). She is scary and effective, but with an insecure streak that makes you want to root for her. And The Terror himself is a version of the villain with no compass or guiding principle. He probably has some big world-dominating master plan in the works, but he comes across as a creepy fellow who just really enjoys his work (and that work is, obviously, evil and destructive). The joke isn’t that he is supposed to be frightening but is actually ridiculous — the joke is that his nonchalant villainy is precisely why he deserves to be named “The Terror.” Just as The Tick is a believable hero, despite his silly name, goofy suit, and childlike attitude.
In fact, The Tick excels in having its cake and eating it too. Sure, it’s a parody of the superhero genre. But it’s also an original entry to that genre, full of surprising pleasures that stand on their own (“Dangerboat,” Overkill’s headquarters and AI assistant, is voiced by Alan Tudyck). And Serafinowicz brings so much charm and unhinged glee to his performance as The Tick that he is reason enough to give this show a chance. While the series may be reflecting the grittier tone of the superhero genre as a whole, The Tick himself is the last bastion of that rare commodity we don’t see enough of anymore: a simple, uncomplicated good guy.