Features and Columns · TV

‘The Tick’ Never Could Catch a Break

Despite always finding some loyal fans, Ben Edlund’s goofy crimefighter just can’t catch a break in the realm of live-action media.
The Tick 2017
Amazon Studios
By  · Published on July 24th, 2020

Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance. This time, we consider The Tick.

There’s an old phrase that says the third time is the charm. This mantra isn’t true when it comes to The Tick. There have been three shows dedicated to the satirical superhero. Of those shows, only the mid-’90s animated series, which marked the character’s first screen incarnation, was a moderate hit. The two subsequent live-action iterations (debuted in 2001 and 2017) were short-lived and quickly canceled.

Maybe this hero is just too weird for general audiences. The character was conceived by Ben Edlund in 1986 as a deconstruction of superheroes. The Tick is essentially a well-meaning airhead who started fighting crime through a combination of boredom and a hunger for justice. He’s all brawn and no brains, and his enemies are downright bizarre. Take Chairface, for example, a supervillain whose face is a chair. Edlund’s an off-kilter creator, and his imagination is a thing of beauty.

That said, re-introducing the Tick to the screen in 2017 made some sense. The success of the film Deadpool the previous year showed that the world was ready for more leftfield takes on the superhero genre. But Rob Liefeld’s fourth-wall-breaking antihero is polished with a Marvel sheen. The Tick has always been a low-rent weirdo who mainly appeals to nerds and stoners. Making him too accessible would taint his legacy.

Then again, the recent Amazon Studios series doesn’t go too off the rails with the deconstructive elements. It’s actually a conventional superhero story in many ways. The inherently comedic and weird aspects of the lore remain intact, but the approach to storytelling is more focused and formulaic. It did just enough to cater to modern genre fans while being wacky enough to stand out in a populated superhero television landscape.

However, the series has more heart and charm than most modern superhero fare. It’s an earnest love letter to the genre, and that sweetness is even apparent during the scenes of carnage and bloodletting. But it’s still pretty strange. Any show with lobster monsters and robot ninjas will be. The Tick has always been affectionate toward superheroes, though. Even when it’s lampooned them.

The series’ story follows Arthur (Griffin Newman), whose obsession with superheroes and conspiracies has become a cause of concern to his loved ones. When he was a child, a group of the city’s superbeings accidentally killed his father. As an adult, he spends his time trying to hunt down The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley). He blames the baddie for his father’s death, and he’s convinced that the supervillain is still out there. No one else believes him, at least not until he meets a noble cohort in the form of the Tick.

The decision to center the show on Arthur is a wise one. While a show that centered around the titular hero could have been fun, the decision to minimize his involvement works well. The Tick gives the show its moments of goofy charm and old-school pazazz. Arthur, meanwhile, provides compelling character beats and keeps the story grounded, to a degree. I also love the decision to make a character who is a sidekick in the comics the main focus. It’s a refreshing take that hasn’t been explored in other Tick media.

Peter Serafinowicz nails the role of the eponymous crusader. He looks ridiculous in the blue insectoid costume and gives his best golden age superhero impression. At the same time, he also comes across as a good-natured simpleton who’s completely out of touch with reality. That’s exactly who the Tick is, and Serafinowicz gets completely absorbed in the part. The actor is a wonderful comedic talent, and he was born to play this role.

The Tick is inherently silly and tongue-in-cheek, but the show makes a genuine effort to tell an engrossing story without completely abandoning the lore’s goofy roots. Turning a show like this into a parody of superheroes and their popularity would have been the easy route to take. Finding that balance of drama and laugh-out-loud humor isn’t easy, but the show nails the tone. The funniest moments involve the Tick awkwardly spouting superhero catchphrases. Especially while he’s embroiled in some gritty and deadly situations that make his words seem out of place.

The series also expands the lore, as opposed to adapting what’s been told before. The backstory of each character isn’t explored in the comics. They are paired up and immediately thrust into a world of action and adventure. They don’t turn back after that. Here, their relationship is more developed and the story delves deeper into their origins. If the show had continued for more than two seasons, both characters could have been fleshed out even more. Their mystery is part of the charm of the comics, but the show’s approach is well-handled and intriguing in its own right.

Amazon cut the series after two seasons, maintaining the character’s unfortunate fate in the screen realm. The timing was awful, though, as the second season is even better than the first. The Tick gets funnier and more ambitious as it progresses, introducing a range of strong characters who are just as interesting as the leads. The series was killed just as it was about to really soar.

Of course, you don’t have to be familiar with the comics to appreciate the series. The show set out to be its own thing and re-introduce the character for the modern age. But it also aimed to fill in some gaps for long-term fans who have always wanted to learn more about characters who’ve been around for more than thirty years. This should have catered to newcomers and diehards alike, but it wasn’t to be.

Attempts to resurrect the show were made following its cancelation. Fans took to social media to drum up support, and Edlund tried his best to find a new home for his baby. Unfortunately, the networks and streaming services weren’t interested. However, to paraphrase the creator: when the time is right, the Tick will return again. Just don’t expect him to stick around too long.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.