As a comic-book concept that has already been turned into an animated cartoon for TV (in 1994), adapted again in prime time with flesh and blood actors (in 2001 for Fox) and now yet again for Amazon, The Tick might be the best superhero ever. You can’t defeat him as a franchise, can’t dampen his expressive enthusiasm and, in our currently dark political days, he stands out as welcome respite from relentless stupidity and growing anxiety. The Tick is also a nice tonic to dystopian, bleak, poorly lit superheroes moping about on other channels. As a bonus, he’s bright blue.
Amazon’s version is, like those before it, created, written, produced and shepherded by Ben Edlund, who started The Tick back in 1986 when he was an 18-year-old budding cartoonist drawing a mascot for the newsletter of his local comic book store (that he’s held the rights and creative control for all of these years is a separate superhuman feat). Equally amazing is how well received each iteration is, giving The Tick true cult status.
The latest version remains as wonderfully quirky as all the others, but cleverly adds new layers of depth and character development that will (one would hope) allow it to play out over multiple seasons. The one essential feature that hasn’t been lost is the earnestness and cluelessness and relentlessly upbeat attitude of The Tick himself, this time played by Peter Serafinowicz, the British actor who takes quite well to the character’s penchant for upbeat pronouncements and confusing non-sequiturs. It’s hard not to fall for a giant blue bug whose glass is always more than half-full and who has superhuman strength, can’t be harmed by bullets and who, although he can’t fly, can easily survive a multiple-story fall out a window, smashing the concrete below and popping up, all smiles.
It’s about time we had some bright blue hues in this dark world.
But there’s more to Edlund’s current version of The Tick than in the past. Arthur (Griffin Newman) is no longer just a nerdy accountant who reluctantly becomes The Tick’s sidekick (in a Moth suit); now he’s got legitimate mental health issues in addition to his nerdiness, and the 2017 version of the series takes those very seriously. Arthur is the tragically famous kid (in The City, a fictional place that’s New York) whose father was killed when the space ship from five famous superheroes was shot out of the sky and landed on him. That they all were reduced to blindness by “weaponized syphilis” is just one of those delightfully off-kilter bits that pop up, unexpectedly and unexplained.
Similarly to The Incredibles, the world of The Tick is one that has already accepted the presence of superheroes. At the moment, they aren’t much of a needed force, since the world’s first and most famous superhero, Superian (Brendan Hines), has dispatched The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley), the notorious supervillain. Now Superian mostly goes on talk shows and recalls that old victory in tired, rote detail. One of many ways that The Tick sends up the superhero trope, this is a lovely wink. Oh, and Superian’s costume suit is ridiculously old-school, which is even better.
Of course, The Terror isn’t really dead. Like all good supervillains he’s been lying in wait (plus, why would you waste Haley, who not surprisingly gives 110 percent to The Terror?).
His right-hand partner, Miss Lint (Yara Martinez), a villain who has powers of electricity (but attracts a ton of annoying lint to herself in the process, messing up her ability to wear black), has been holding down the fort as an underling to Ramses IV, a human in the bad-guy game who doesn’t really measure up. Hot on their tail is Overkill, a half-man, half-machine vigilante who hilariously earns his nickname by slicing up bad guys in various fight scenes in a manner that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. (The Tick, by the way, has a long history of cleverly named villains and heroes.)
What’s intriguing about Edlund being able to hold onto the franchise and watch over each iteration is that he can make whatever tweaks he deems necessary. While the first six episodes (available Friday; the second half drops later) display that slightly annoying tendency — especially at streaming outlets — of caring more about the whole better than the parts, unfolding less like a TV series and more like a movie, there’s still a glorious amount of enjoyment to be had here. The show treats Arthur’s illness seriously, and Newman’s strong performance is key to pulling it off, giving Arthur more depth than he’s ever had. His sister Dot (Valorie Curry), a paramedic in The City, looks after him (while doing some surgery on the side for the mob — a C storyline that doesn’t quite pay off in this first half). So you get fully realized characters in places you wouldn’t expect them, and then The Tick drops his big blue self into the frame and reminds you it’s a comic book story and a goofy one at that. Managing the tonal shifts is one of the most impressive things about The Tick. It’s a testament to the series that the writing stands up as it zips from dramatic development to little visual puns that slice through it all.
Making that difficult feat look easy are several strong performances: Serafinowicz does exemplary work, as does Newman; Haley’s overkill viciousness (although there’s not too much of it early on) is giddy; and Martinez is impressive having to be nasty while also bitter at all that lint. There’s a lot to like here, and the episodes fly by.
The Tick has the look and feel of something that could really work for Amazon. The fact that the show is unabashedly serialized, with no real rush to tell the developing story in the first six episodes, is a bit of a hindrance, but it certainly makes you look forward to the back end.
Cast: Peter Serafinowicz, Griffin Newman, Jackie Earle Haley, Valorie Curry, Yara Martinez, Scott Speiser, Michael Cerveris
Created and executive produced by Ben Edlund
Executive producers: Barry Josephson, David Fury
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)