22 years ago, fans fell in love with a TV version of Ben Edlund’s The Tick, charmed by the show’s loopy self-aware superhero send-ups. 15 years ago, fans cheered for a live-action version of the Tick starring the too-perfect Patrick Warburton. Today, we get a new Tick for a new landscape, and I’m already hooked.
The Tick never got big like other comics characters from his era. His obscure, black-and-white, indie-publisher origins were similar to Men in Black or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but the character became a cult favorite instead of a household name. And as is the case with cult favorites, fans of Tick comics and harbor ferocious love for their love for the blue bug of justice, clutching their memories with nigh-immeasurable strength. There’s been some worry in the ether about the new Tick series that starts airing today on Amazon, concern that it might sneeze evil over those memories. Fear not, citizens; this is the smartest, sharpest version of Edlund’s character yet, one that’s perfect for a superhero-saturated pop culture ecosystem.
Superheroes and evil masterminds do exist in the fiction of this new show, subject to the same kind of adoration and obsession that athletes and celebrities get. Yet The Tick 2016 is realer than its predecessors. It’s set in New York City, centered on a version of Arthur (last name: Everest) who takes medication to regulate his frazzled psyche. Arthur suffers from origin story trauma, witnessing his dad getting crushed by the sleek rocketplane of the Flag 5 super-team. The Flag 5 get killed by criminal overlord The Terror right in front of Arthur.
The boy who idolized superheroes never evolves into his own cape-wearing identity and, despite the assurances of smoothly smug Superman stand-in Superian, Arthur can’t shake the idea that The Terror is still alive.
When he ventures out to the docks at the night to try and find clues supporting his conspiracy theory, he runs into a bunch of thugs... and a stout man in an antenna-ed, bright blue bodysuit. The Tick greets Arthur and starts grandiloquently holding forth on destiny’s warm hand on the small of his back pushing them towards fighting evil, as the meek young fellow’s face starts twitching. “I’m the Tick,” Peter Serfanowicz intones, and Arthur’s own tic makes his left eye a hyperactive mess. It’s an omen, like that lost, fermented-fruit-drunk bat that crashed into the Wayne Manor study and inspired Bruce Wayne. But Arthur’s similarities to Bruce Wayne feel like a genre convention that gets twisted and attached end-to-end like a Mobius strip.
He loses a parent in a tragic death that everyone in the city knows about. “You’re the little boy from the photograph,” says the police psychologist during his intake assessment after he gets arrested. His bereavement and attendant psych-emotional problems make him blurt out “I’m a together person!” in protest. Yet, this first episode sees him run up hard against the limits of his emotional and logistical resources. His reality quietly shatters and reforms around the masked interloper who’s certain that greater things await.
The Tick 2016 throws a bravura mix of tones at its audience: it’s campily loopy yet deadly serious, satirical yet sincere, cartoonish yet fraught with dread. In the flashback where we see Arthur come face-to-face with the Terror, that same nervous twitch comes out when the supervillain steals his cup of ice cream and sucks it empty right before his eyes.
The moment is dark and funny, daring you to laugh at its bleakness. Griffin Newman plays Arthur as pent-up and nebbishy, a shlub simmering with resolve that he has no outlet for. His bond with older sister Dot is believably tender, even as he chafes at her worries about his state of mind. Serafinowicz is a revelation throughout it all, channeling a teeny bit of Adam West and oodles of fannish excitement over his own existence. That excitement multiplies as he tries to get Arthur to cross over to the conventions of the fictive universe he’s surrounded by. Serafinowicz coos, bubbles, and barks through his dialogue, cheerfully flicking and backhanding the bad guys he takes out.
Arthur’s twitch shows up several times in the pilot, an almost-wink that’s a visual conceit gesturing at multivalent self-awareness. Edlund wrote this episode and plays with expectations here, knowing full well a fair chunk of the audience is familiar with both superhero genre conventions and previous iterations of The Tick. When an alarm clock bleats and the Tick says to Arthur, “Thanks for turning off that beeping,” it’s both a laugh-out-loud nod to the opening sequence of the old Tick cartoon show and a point of divergence from what came before. “Wake up to a new reality!” Even as it’s throwing good ol’ heavy-handed foreshadowing at you—in the form of a bulletproof costume that you know Arthur’s going to put on—it’s also giving you a psychological mystery that’s trickier to parse.
The pilot harbors the hazy subliminal suggestion that the Tick might be a manifestation of Arthur’s emotional upset, as teased in a flashback where Arthur hears his blue nightlight talking to him in that same plummy voice. On one hand, the kneejerk reaction is to think, “c’mon, man, oldest cliche in the book!” On the other, the desire to see how the show might play with such a strong break from Tick mythos of the past is alluring. What if the Tick is a result of Arthur hulking out, you ask? Is this new Tick going to be extra-super-double-weird like that? Best of all, both possibilities feel satisfying in the fleeting moment of consideration. If this is all straight-up and the Tick is real and chuckling through gunfire, there’s fun to be had. If the Tick is a figment of Arthur’s sad, repressed desire for revenge and justice, then a grimmer sort of hijinks will be ensuing. On top of those two scoops of genre ice cream is a caramel sauce, the moment where we know we’re supposed to ask if the Tick and/or Arthur are crazy. It’s the unavoidable query at the heart of superhero fiction and here it’s part of the whole impish enterprise.
That meta-consideration feels like just another implement to spark deeper engagement. While your brain is buzzing around the question of whether the hallucination trope is true, the deepest fan-neurons are firing in your skull. It’s a spider-sense tingle that comes from being in the hands of a seasoned nerd creator, someone who knows that you know that he knows what you know. This pilot is part of Amazon’s Pilot Season contest, the annual showcase where the online retail giant offers a bunch of new series debuts and greenlights whichever one performs best. That game plays into Arthur’s yearning. Apparition or not, the Tick is real. We and Arthur need him to be. The sensation of Edlund writing over his own past makes for great subtext, generating a sort of playfulness that augurs well for the rest of the series. This version of The Tick aims to be a show about shows about superheroes, complete with hero-centric search engines, fluff daytime talk show interviews, and YouTube videos of super-fights. We can’t avoid superheroes now, as much as some folk might want to. Too much of a good thing can do weird things to a person’s brain, superheroes included, and it feels like The Tick is going to cannonball butt-first into the weirdness that’s been welling up in the collective nerd hivemind. That is, if it gets the chance.