All images: Amazon
I thought I knew what to expect after seeing the pilot and, months later, the second episode of Amazon’s re-imagined Tick TV show. But, having now seen the initial six chapters of the series’ first season, the show still amazed me with how cleverly it cuts into the hyperdense muscle of superhero genre conventions. The Tick wields more than enough strength to wrestle your love into a big, sloppy hug.
When cartoonist-turned-screenwriter Ben Edlund first introduced the Tick in comic books more than 30 years ago, the blue-clad insect hero was a way to lampoon what was happening in mainstream superhero fare. The Tick took on everything from implausible secret identity disguises to the rough poetry of Frank Miller’s Daredevil work. The comic-book version of the Tick was like a parade of geek in-jokes, material you might hear during a secret stand-up routine at a San Diego comedy club during Comic-Con. In 1994, the Tick animated series took on an action-heavy focus, which made sense for the Saturday morning timeslot it was created for. Seven years later, the first live-action adaptation of Ben Edlund’s parody superhero manifested as a sitcom, heavy on interpersonal tensions to skirt a budget that hamstrung creators from going all out.
This new version of The Tick feels like the freest one yet. It can be what it wants to be without having to worry about kid-marketing angles or Nielsen ratings. And what it is is a surprisingly heartfelt satire of stuff we’ve seen a whole dang lot of, lately.
Produced by Edlund, the new Tick savvily notes the prevalence of superhero fare in our current moment and uses it to strike comedic gold. It takes great pleasure in upending audience expectations. For example, subsequent episodes aren’t as dark as the pilot would have you think and that subversion even lives in the title.
This show isn’t so much about the Tick (Peter Serafinowicz) as it is about meek milquetoast accountant Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman). When the Tick shows up in his life, Arthur’s been dealing with the psychological fallout of seeing his father—and superhero team the Flag Five—killed by archvillain the Terror. Even though the show takes place in a world where superheroes have existed for years, it seems like the Tick can’t possibly be real, because he’s so disproportionately larger-than-life when compared to the rest of Arthur’s humdrum existence. The play between what’s real and not—indeed, what deserves to be real—drives the thematic concerns of the show.
As a character, this version of the Tick is a joy. Plopped into an almost-real world he never made, the Tick stands out more incongruously than ever before. Seeing actor Peter Serafinowicz amble down the streets of New York City and holler his feelings in a megaphone voice is enough to start a laughing jag. Serafinowicz performs the hero’s hilarious mix of innocence and meta-knowledge with glee. This Tick comes across as a ultra-fan of all the aspirational symbolism of superheroes and, therefore, as a fan of himself. When Arthur expresses doubt, the Tick waves it away by citing it as a to-be-expected story trope. Tick wants to be even more of a fan of Arthur than he already is but needs the smaller man to accept his heroic destiny for that to happen.
Newman tackles the scripts’ slapstick situations with a lot of infectious energy but the best thing about his performance is that his Arthur doesn’t feel like a nebbishy wimp. Yes, he’s nervous and reluctant but there’s a level of conviction about his own existence and beliefs that makes him extremely likable. There’s a touch of Greatest American Hero to this version of Arthur because—as in the oddball 1980s superhero action show—he spends a lot of time not knowing how to use his super-suit, while being pressured by another character who needs to access to what it can do.
There’s more logic and world-building undergirding this version of the Tick than its predecessors. It’s got a superhero history that stretches back decades and a federal organization that licenses and oversees superhuman activity.
These elements are, of course, used for laughs but they also raise the stakes for all involved. Unbelievably forthright, wholesome, and durable, the Tick comes across as if he’s meant to occupy a position of glory in that wondrous superhero history. But he’s dumb as all get-out, blundering along without Arthur’s brains. It’s been a staple of Tick fictions that Arthur needs the Tick as a portal to the excitement of superhero life but, here, the Tick needs Arthur for direction. The Tick knows his purpose but isn’t great at executing it in a world that isn’t a cartoon. Arthur wants nothing to do with adventuring but he’s naturally gifted with skills that can root out the big evil lurking in the shadows.
Yet, because the fragility of Arthur’s everyday life gets effectively set up early on, the weight of consequence hovers over all of the proceedings. If the Tick is just the manifestation of Arthur’s troubled mind or if he’s wrong about the threat of a long-dead bad guy still being alive, his whole life would fall apart—and not just his life, either. The warm supply of sibling support from sister Dot (Valorie Curry) would turn cold and curdle, along with other family relationships. So the Tick’s good-natured blundering creates a dramatic tension that feeds right back into the comedy. There are real stakes here.
It’s not just Arthur, either. Almost every character in the show harbors a secret yearning or tricky moral dilemma that makes them more than just two-dimensional superfolk. Heroes, villains, and civilians all deal with the awkward aftermaths of broken romances, weird house party small talk, and wondering what kinds of impressions they’ve left on others. The Tick himself only finds a yawning void when he tries to answer questions about his own past. Again, that’s an established part of Tick lore but it’s used to poignant effect here and not just absurdist laughs.
In a moment where people regularly complain about the bloat of, say, the Netflix Marvel shows, six episodes of the new Tick doesn’t feel like anywhere near enough. It’s because the Amazon series offers up an exceedingly well-balanced blend of laughs and modulated crisis, populated with characters who are familiar yet fresh. Every episode has lines or scenes just waiting to become part of the lingua franca of present-day nerd-dom. Or as the Tick puts it, “When destiny speaks, she speaks to me. She says ‘hi,’ by the way.”
The Tick starts streaming on Amazon Prime this Friday, August 25.