That The Tick has returned (with a pilot that debuted last year and five more episodes premiering on Amazon today) shouldn’t come as any kind of great surprise in this era of rampant reboots, even if the previous live action version only existed for a couple of months in late 2001 and early 2002 after years as a Saturday morning cartoon and a comic book. A pre-existing fan base must feel warm and comforting to development executives when surveying which shows to put on the air in an uncertain media climate. And reboots are good for getting that kind of attention. But unlike most other reboots and long-awaited continuations, this new incarnation of The Tick isn’t filled with familiar faces and its tone won’t cause nostalgia tingles for the old show. But that only makes it better.
The world of The Tick is more gritty and real than what fans of the Patrick Warburton-starring live action series will remember. Wally Pfister — who worked with Christopher Nolan for many years, including on Nolan’s Batman movies — directs the first two episodes and helps establish the realistic tone. This helps create a contrast between normal people and the series’ superheroes and villains. Still, despite looking and feeling like a standard superhero show or movie (many of which have been influenced by Pfister and Nolan’s work) — complete with the occasional bit of bloody violence and chaos — series and character creator Ben Edlund remains committed to wringing comedy out of superheroics.
Peter Serafinowicz is now the man in the blue suit playing the dim-but-brave Tick. But in a departure from convention, the hero isn’t tasked with carrying the narrative load. That falls to his sidekick, Arthur (Griffin Newman). The Tick is the muscle, dispensing his unique brand of uncomplicated heroic wisdom in bursts that make it seem like he’s some kind of catchphrase generator. The bulk of this is delivered with a tone of satisfaction and righteousness that almost seems to mockingly call back to the George Reeves/Superman hunky dory heroes that were long ago banished to the far reaches of the comic book world.
In the first episode we learn that, as a child, Arthur watched as a supervillain named The Terror (Jackie Earl Haley) decimated his favorite superheroes (a Fantastic Four stand-in known as The Flag Five) after their ship crash-landed on top of Arthur’s father. It’s his tormented backstory and his obsessive efforts to chase down a conspiracy theory about The Terror (and not the Tick’s barely explored origins, which are teased as a possible catalyst for his ceaseless determination) that serves as a road map for the show as Arthur and the Tick’s paths cross.
Arthur has a functioning support structure — his sister, Dot (Valorie Curry in a role that seems like it may expand in future episodes), their mother, and their stepfather. But they’re all more focused on making sure he’s OK than on getting into what’s really bothering him.
While the Tick is emotionally two-dimensional, making the character little more than a fun and physically imposing device for Serafinowicz to mug and for Arthur to play off, Newman gets to play with a layered character. There’s a chip on Arthur’s shoulder, but also fear in his heart as he tries to right wrongs while safely hidden away on the periphery, the natural progression of a kid who felt inspired by superheroes and also saw the danger that can come when that world gets too close. He’s a maladjusted character who has, for years, been told he was broke, and the mix of panic, apprehension, and muffled courage projected by Newman keeps the character compelling.
The Terror’s former right hand, Miss Lint (Yara Martinez) serves as a mid-level villain who begrudgingly takes marching orders from Ramses IV (Michael Cerveris), a dopey crime lord with a serious addiction to ancient Egyptian culture. Martinez is solid in the role, conveying a near-constant look of annoyance as she deals with the shortfalls that come with her superpower, a #NiceGuy ex (Bryan Greenberg in a small but fun role) with a man bun and no desire to leave their shared condo, and the incompetence of those around her. Still, tying Miss Lint’s confidence so closely to The Terror feels like a mistake, especially since she and Dot, the show’s other main female character, aren’t given enough to do outside of pursuing and tending to Arthur. The Tick 2.0 could use a reimagined Captain Liberty or, at least, a little more focus on Miss Lint and Dot going forward.
As The Terror, Jackie Earl Haley does little more so far than act as a boogeyman in flashbacks and daydreams. He’s appropriately broad and made up to be slightly off-putting. Like the Tick, little is known about what motivates The Terror, though it may just be nothing more complicated than a zeal for evildoing. Which is fine: every supervillain doesn’t need a woe-filled backstory.
That same rule usually applies to supplemental superheroes, but finding out a little bit more about the show’s ultra-violent, murder-y, and dickish Batman stand-in (sorry, Bat-Manuel), Overkill (Scott Speiser), might be fun if only to see more of his interactions with Dangerboat (voiced by Alan Tudyk), his prickly and needy AI sidekick/colleague. Overkill is the closest thing to full-on parody that Edlund allows in this version of the show, though there are other (often subtle) digs that’ll appeal most to fans of the genre.
Playing so close to superhero genre norms in both the look, tone, and trajectory of the show makes it hard to categorize this version of The Tick as a satire. This version seems to have other ambitions. Yes, Edlund points at the absurdity of superhero genre tropes, but he also embraces them. It’s clear that Edlund (and the other producers and writers) love the genre that they work in, even if they don’t always love where it’s going. The Tick and Overkill’s contrasting styles and the way that the characters clash takes on added resonance in light of the rise of comic book movie violence and the extreme lengths someheroes have been forced to go to since those influential Nolan movies.
In the age of tortured heroes, the Tick is a square peg. Maybe Edlund is setting us all up to see Tick enter into that club. Or maybe Edlund isn’t mocking that George Reeves’ Superman and all it represents. Maybe he’s pitting it up against this era’s morally gray heroes, as represented by Overkill, in an effort to prove that there’s still value in uncompromised goodness. Viewers won’t find an answer to that question in these first six episodes, but they will likely find themselves drawn back into The Tick’s world when it returns next year.
The Tick is available to stream on Amazon. It will return with the second half of the first season in early 2018.