Is The Tick the greatest of the ’90s reboots?
I really truly madly deeply loved the MST3K reboot, and I hope they get another eleven seasons. But MST3K is like solar energy—an endlessly renewable resource. There will always be cheesy movies, and jerks like me will always love snarking on them, and hearing others’ snark. The Tick, though, was more explicitly of its time—specifically, the late ’80s and early ’90s. Created, like the Ninja Turtles, as a direct response to Frank Miller’s gritty style of comics, The Tick was an absurdist beacon of sunshine that defined Saturday morning in the ’90s, and became a live action cult classic right before 9/11.
Having considered all of that we have to ask ourselves: did this reboot work? Is it necessary? A beacon of mighty blue hope for troubled times? Well chums, I’m ecstatic to say that the new series is pretty much perfect. The characters have been updated fantastically, the superhero parodies are hilarious, and that core Tick/Arthur relationship is lovely. So let me say here in this paragraph, go watch it!
And now I will make with some light spoilers, so don’t read on unless you’re caught up.
First things first: the casting is excellent. Each iteration of The Tick has thrived on its parodies of superheroes, from Oedipus in the comics to Sarcastro and Die Fliedermaus in the cartoon to Batmanuel and Apocalypse Cow—she shoot fire from her teats—in the original live-action series. I’m pleased to say that the newest version has some of the best superheroic satire yet. Peter Serafinowicz is a mighty and hilarious Tick (and just as good as Patrick Warburton and Townsend Coleman), while the rest of the super-powered cast—Scott Speiser’s Overkill (a pitch-perfect-Punisher-parody), Valorie Curry’s Dot Everest, Alan Tudyk’s a sentient crime-solving boat, Yara Martinez’s Miss Lint, and especially Jackie Earl Haley’s The Terror—are each amazing, note-perfect heroes and villains.
But it’s Griffin Newman’s terrified, neurotic, morally-outraged Arthur who is the soul of the show, and he sells the hell out of it from the first moment. The first two episodes made my tummy drop with alarm, because they kept mashing the “is Tick all in Arthur’s head?” button. In fact, they mash that button so hard that Arthur decides it is all in his head, and leaves Tick to go take more medication. At this point, having enjoyed the show, I was thinking well if they actually make a self-aware Fight Club it’ll be interesting but I really don’t know if I can stick that out in a Tick reboot. But then the show pulls back from that cliff, because Dot sees the Tick. Arthur realizes that he isn’t hallucinating, and a whole new world of possibilities open up. At this point the show turns more into a self-aware hero’s journey.
The worldbuilding is so subtle and perfect. The characters live in a world that contains superheroes and villains, and it goes pretty much as you’d expect: everyone just goes about their day. My personal favorite episode, “Party Crashers” revolves around the Tick showing up to Arthur’s stepdad’s 60th birthday party, and it is a masterclass in creating a believable superpeopled world. Walter (played by Francois Chau, who is the eeee-villl Jules-Pierre Mao on The Expanse) is an aggressively normal man. When he learns that a real live super-person has shown up for his birthday (albeit, uninvited) he is ecstatic. “You’re better than a birthday clown!” he exclaims, and invites the Tick to sit next to him while he opens his gifts. It’s adorable, and a nice counterpoint to the grittier aspects of the New Tick.
Best of all, however, is that of all the iterations of The Tick, this is the one that most understands the value of Arthur, and the reason this is good—other than that I need to live in a world where the Tick is real, even if only for 23 minute increments—is that it allows Arthur’s story to become the center of the show.
Arthur isn’t even a sidekick—he’s a small, physically inept man who would more often be a civilian casualty, who wants to be a hero. He doesn’t just want to be a good person, he wants to be the person running into burning building and rescuing people. This is subtext in the cartoon, but becomes a bigger deal in the first live action series. Now, in a world that sees a new superhero movie about every three months, and where you have your choice of over a dozen superhero themed TV shows, the Tick’s showrunners have given us exactly what we’ve needed: an ordinary man who chooses to be a hero.
He has no powers. Even his origin story trauma isn’t original: he watched his dad die. Most superheroes have watched at least one parent die. In the Tim Burton version of Batman, Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed by the man who goes on to become the Joker. In the Sam Raimi version of Spider-Man (as in the original comic), Uncle Ben is killed by a thief who Peter Parker allowed to escape. Watching your parent/guardian die is practically super-heroing 101. The Tick’s twist on it? It’s Arthur’s favorite superhero team who kill his dad—he’s collateral damage. And since Arthur is an ordinary guy, not a billionaire playboy or a super-powered personage, he doesn’t get to turn his rage and guilt into a campaign—he just has to endure pitying looks from people who recognize him from the photo snapped immediately after the accident.
Instead he engages in guerilla journalism to try to prove that The Terror is still alive, planning to turn his files over to the police, because he believes in JUSTICE. But then he meets the Tick, and gets a supersuit of his own. The first half of the season are him gaining, losing, and regaining the suit, learning to use it, and learning to let his heroism come to the fore. When he finally faces off with Rameses IV (a brilliant Ozymandias parody) we see how far he’s come, because not only does he refuse to hand the suit over, he acts as a human shield to Dot when Rameses and his gang start shooting. Even more, after that? After they capture Rameses Arthur won’t allow Overkill to, er, overkill him, instead insisting that they turn him over to AEGIS, the government agency that oversees supers in this new version of the Tick’s universe. Obviously this goes awry, but the point is that Arthur isn’t just a hero, he’s also a good person. And finally, when Rameses attacks a bus full of innocent civilians, it’s Arthur who takes the lead and puts himself at risk to save everyone while the Tick acts as backup.
By the end of the six episodes, the Tick and Arthur are more a team than they’ve been in any previous iteration, and it makes me want to clasp this show in a mighty hug.
Tiny things I loved:
- Arthur’s tightly wound-ness is perfectly summed up in a piece of body language: he holds his thumb over his beer while popping the cap to make sure it doesn’t fly away from him.
- Overkill is the best parody of the Punisher I’ve ever seen, and the Tick’s attempts to stop him from “making murder salad” are the comic highlight of the series so far.
- What is the deal with Ben Edlund and competent women named Janet? Captain Liberty’s civilian name was Janet, and now we learn that Miss Lint is named Janet. What was done to you, Edlund?
- How awesome is Miss Lint!!!???
- Hang on, I have to talk about Overkill again—Fo Ham! Dangerboat!
- Best line in fact goes to Dangerboat, discussing Overkill’s culinary choices: “It won’t be a bullet that kills you.”
- St. Eva Marie Hospital!
- This show reminds me of Dirk Gently—although I think it modulates itself a bit better. Where Dirk can be a bit frantic, The Tick focuses enough on each of its characters that it feels lived in.
Now I do have to note that apparently this season of The Tick has been split in half, so we only get six episodes for now, which, emotionally speaking is dirty pool! But it sounds like Edlund and company had good reasons for breaking the show up, and I trust them. And now I’m going to get out of the way and invite your comments!