Peter Serafinowicz might have the thankless title role of this TV year. As The Tick‘s Tick, he’s mod-podge’d into a bright blue uniform. This isn’t one of those fancy, functional, mesh-and-basketball-material super-suits. It’s a muscle-mass sarcophagus, the kind of thing Michael Keaton wore when he couldn’t turn his neck or lift his elbow. And The Tick isn’t the kind of superhero saga that keeps finding a reason to get the good guy out of his mask. In the six episodes Amazon released for review — and in the whole three-decade history of the character — the Tick is the Tick.
And you could argue he’s not even the main character on his own show (more on that later). First, let me begin by thanking Serafinowicz profusely. With a booming voice and brazen madman confidence, he turns practically every one of his statements into a laughline. “We’ll cross that bridge after we’ve burned it!” he might intone, or “I broke a few eggs, but the omelet is huge!” The Tick has always been a freefloating goof on superherodom, and there are people who treasure creator Ben Edlund’s comic book, the ensuing Fox Kids cartoon, and the shortlived Patrick Warburton-fronted live-action Fox show. But the character’s never come to life for me as vividly as he does the moment Serafinowicz walks onscreen. The parody is specific — close your eyes and he sounds stunningly like Adam West’s Batman — but the madness is sincere. The central twisted joke of this new Tick is that the title hero is simultaneously the most old-fashioned and most demented character onscreen.
And execution matters a lot for the new Tick series. There’s a long history of comedic riffing on superheroes, and a longer history of archetype-deconstructing meta-sagas. Edlund was still a teenager in the ’80s when he came up with the character. Since then, he’s had a fascinating journeyman career on television, doing time in the Whedonverse and New Kripke City. Most recently, he was a writer for Powers and Gotham. Those were two attempts at putting a new spin on the superhero saga.
Powers was, and Gotham continues to be, bad, but one suspects Edlund learned some lessons from his time in those trenches. The new Tick is set in a world full of superheroes, presided over by century-old Superman analogue Superian (Brendan Hines, marvelously inhuman). When the show begins, we’re following loner sadsack Arthur (Griffin Newman). Initially, you think Arthur’s sad backstory is merely a reference to every sad hero backstory. (His father died on the outskirts of a long-ago supervillain fight.) But then you realize Arthur’s sad backstory, and his whole hacker-psychotic state of being, is a vastly more specific reference. The Tick appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and begins following Arthur everywhere. There are many references to his breakdowns, his medication — to the possibility that he’s imagining the Tick, if not everything. Yes, the pilot episode of The Tick is so completely a superpowered riff on Mr. Robot that I initially hesitated to even call it a parody. Suffice it to say, the second episode ups the ante on self-awareness, and makes me wonder if we’ve finally hit Peak That One Song By The Pixies Everyone Knows.
Part of the problem with a self-aware superhero story is that every superhero story now is self-aware. Robert Downey Jr. turned Iron Man into a snarkbot peddling commentary on superhero tropes long before Deadpool. The latest trailer for Justice League climaxes with the kind of Batman Vanishing gag that viral comedy videos were rocking last decade.
But so far, The Tick works. Maybe it’s because Edlund has grown up over the last three decades as a creator and consumer of superhero stories. Maybe it’s because the specific flow of superhero TV shows has become so cemented in pop culture, with the interconnected narratives of the Arrowverse and the prolonged origin stories leading into Defenders. Or maybe it’s because Edlund and his collaborators have found the just-right mix of dark humor and inventive world-building. Arthur and the Tick have a season-defining journey, with a mystery and a clear-cut goal, involving Arthur’s discovery of a supersuit and his search for a supposedly deceased ultravillain called the Terror. The Terror’s played in flashbacks by Jackie Earle Haley, and although the Watchmen actor is having a wild time, his first scene is also genuinely freaky.
The ensemble swells quickly. There’s Overkill (Scott Speiser), a robo-ninja assassin whose every muttering is a goof on all the Deathstroke-y cyborg badasses who proliferated throughout the ’90s and seem doomed to proliferate again. There’s Ms. Lint (Yara Martinez), a henchman without a villain to believe in. Martinez’s oddly poignant slow burn is one of the most unexpected charms of the show; I wouldn’t be surprised if this season is meant to double as her origin story.
Wouldn’t be surprised, slash I hope so. Six episodes in, Arthur’s journey of self-discovery starts to lose my interest. Some of this might just be typical streaming-series lag, and to the show’s credit, it spins through some initial mysteries quickly. But although I like Newman’s everyguy-in-a-mad-world performance, there’s some recognizable notes of origin fatigue. Valorie Curry plays Arthur’s sister Dot, and while she’s not a love interest (the show’s not that weird, yet), she is yet another loved-one-asking-the-hero-not-to-be-a-hero. Halfway through the season, it remains unclear just how much The Tick wants to have its cake and eat it, too, poking meta-fun at the hero’s journey while also following that well-trod path.
But the gags, people, the gags! There’s a talking superdog peddling a nihilistic self-help book on the morning show circuit. There’s a superpower that flavors bad coffee with pumpkin spice. There’s an exploration of bureaucracy in the world of superheroes that implies a whole separate David Simon-worthy spinoff. There’s Serafinowicz, a true delight. And just when I was starting to get bored with how every episode ends on a cliffhanger, episode 6 ends with someone yelling “CLIFFHANGER!”