Amazon Studios threw a lot of money at Ben Edlund and a stacked creative team to make a superhero parody show. What they have on their hands instead is a compelling, quick-witted, psychologically inclined origin story nudged along by a nut job in a blue suit.
The funny thing is, you’d never know it from the way the minds behind The Tick gush about their big blue bug, played by Peter Serafinowicz.
“The great thing about this version of The Tick is that we saw Peter’s work and were blown away,” says executive producer Barry Josephson. “When I called Ben after seeing it, Ben said to me, ‘I think we found our perfect partner, because Peter can be involved with inventing this new version.’”
And it really is a new version. First off, Serafinowicz didn’t watch any footage of the character’s past iterations. Conjure a mental image of the franchise, and you likely end up with either the blithe, moronic smile of the animated series’ protagonist or Patrick Warburton’s wry turn as the big blue bug in the 2001 live-action adaptation. The latter, in particular, has achieved something of cult status, and Warburton’s performance might be hard for serious fans of the franchise to erase from mind.
“Patrick’s version of the Tick is much more childlike,” says writer David Fury. “There was an innocence about him, a warm feeling about him, which you always try to get to anyway. Peter’s version is more dangerous. He does seem like an escaped lunatic from an asylum.”
It’s a spot-on description of the way Serafinowicz plays the character, and it results in a sometimes disorienting experience. One moment in the series’ pilot episode shows the Tick laughing his merry head off as members of the Pyramid Gang fire bullets at his chest in vain; it’s funny, but it’s also terrifying. And it’s not the only time the character appears completely divorced from reality. From totally misunderstanding social conventions to utterly misjudging his own strength, Serafinowicz’s Tick repeatedly acts more like an alien than a human; he’s a sort of combination of Superman, Buddy the Elf and Xavier: Renegade Angel (the protagonist of the weirdest show Adult Swim has ever aired). This would be completely conventional if the story Edlund and company were trying to tell was a straight-up screwball comedy… but it isn’t. There are real stakes and real relationships in this new version of The Tick, and it’s hard to see how the superhero himself fits into his own story as anything more than an instrument.
Serafinowicz offers a reason that the Tick himself might be a relatable character. “He is kind of insane, but he’s also kind,” says the 45-year-old Liverpudlian. “I think everybody can relate to someone who’s kind and not just looking out for themselves. The Tick never thinks about himself, that’s his biggest problem.”
But under the writing team’s guidance, the Tick himself remains an affable, laughable sideshow. Instead, the new series’ first season focuses on Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman), the character’s longtime sidekick. It’s Arthur who’s hunting the Terror (Jackie Earle Haley), the presumed-dead supervillain who killed Arthur’s father years before; it’s Arthur who has to deal with being chased by a variety of bad guys and gals after he acquires his famous moth suit; most significantly, it’s Arthur who provides the show’s main point of view. The Tick’s brain trust decided to flesh out the the feeble accountant’s neuroses, play up his reluctance to answer the hero’s call, and put the audience on his back. Newman is up to the challenge in his first major leading role.
“I don’t think [Edlund’s] changing who the character is; I think he’s expanding who the character is, certainly deepening it, creating a context for it,” Newman opines. “I know the origin story and the tragic backstory is an overused trope at this point, but for this character who always functioned as a neurotic—a kind of in-over-his-head guy—to begin with, he has the psychological complex that’s always existed in the previous characters. It’s just been more of a comedic device. He’s just been digging deeper into who this guy is to make him more well-rounded as a person.”
The result is a drama of the mundane that hasn’t existed in The Tick franchise up to this point, and which is also rare in the superhero genre in general; even ostensibly down-to-earth characters like the Defenders and the CW’s slate of DC protagonists are either highly trained or literal superhumans. Arthur’s not just lacking in powers, physical and mental; he’s also a psychological wreck, dependent upon his sister, Dot (Valorie Curry), for support. A minor character in previous iterations of The Tick, Dot is here elevated to near-top billing, a sort of Deb Morgan to Arthur’s Dexter. The sibling relationship is so crucial to the series that both Newman and Curry were cast before Serafinowicz had signed on.
“From the moment we started the first scene, it felt like we tapped into some kind of thing,” Newman says of Curry. “It felt like she was my sister. And the way you talk when you’re with family, where everyone gets so heightened… When a member of your family criticizes you, it hurts so much more. You get so much more defensive than if a friend does it.”
Indeed, Newman and Curry crackle with realistic warmth (not electricity) when they appear on screen together. Also of note is the ultra-realistic time it takes Arthur to come around to his inevitable superhero role—The Tick has effectively expanded the first third of an origin story movie to the length of a long feature film, and that stretched timeline allows much more room for jokes to be told and other characters to be introduced without cluttering the plot. One such character, Ms. Lint (Yara Martinez), captures the spirit of the show: dangerous, in that she can shock people to death; silly, in that her electric powers attract actual lint from the air around her; and melancholic, as we catch several glimpses into her life and witness the at once humdrum and tragic past that have come to shape her evil. It’s not that there isn’t humor in Arthur’s narrative—there is, particularly in his encounters with the aptly named Overkill (Scott Speiser) and an incredibly awkward family party. But you might be forgiven if you watch The Tick and write off Arthur’s rise as a neatly crafted but traditional superhero story.
That’s why the combination of Arthur and the Tick works well. In a solo lead role, the Tick would be incapable of sustaining a modern TV audience’s attention. But without the Tick, not only would Arthur not have the driving force of “DESTINY!” pushing him forth—he also wouldn’t have nearly as eye-catching a story. A particularly fitting comparison, given the emphasis upon Arthur’s mental disorders, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Tick is a bizarro, bulletproof McMurphy who cares genuinely and deeply about all people, and Arthur is one of the chronics who’s been beaten down by life and needs a McMurphy to restore his confidence and agency. In this case, it happens to work, and no one’s forced to get a lobotomy.
There’s a definite risk to remaking The Tick now, in 2017, when even superhero parodies are getting tired. But Edlund and the rest of his team have managed to find the sweet spot between self-aware rehash and real heart, and even though this balance is sometimes thrown off-kilter with a mistimed gag or a trite line, the series mostly hits the mark. Longtime fans, at least, should be shouting delighted cries of “SPOON!” to the heavens.
The Tick premieres Friday, August 25 on Amazon Prime.
Zach Blumenfeld played five games of Settlers of Catan this week and decided upon “Waves” by Kanye West as his Victory Song. Follow him on Twitter.