[By Jeremy Grayson]
“Gravity. It’s a harsh mistress.” – The Tick (after falling down an elevator shaft)
Superheroes are everywhere these days, aren’t they? The summer movie season is flooded with capes-and-tights blockbusters. A heroic new TV series seems to debut every few weeks. They appear on all sorts of merchandise, ranging from backpacks and T-shirts to pencils and toothbrushes. And hey, sometimes they even appear in comic books.
Superheroes have become so entrenched in popular culture that we tend to forget how recently they were viewed as cheap and disposable by the mass media. Prior to the year 2000, few heroes outside of Superman and Batman were given the big-screen treatment. And not for lack of trying, either – Marvel spent years trying to make an Iron Man film, and decades attempting to produce an Ant-Man. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the floodgates finally burst open.
So it’s probably not a total shock that FOX’s The Tick, which aired back in the youthful days (for silver screen superheroes) of 2001, failed to ignite with audiences. Though the first X-Men film had been a hit the previous summer, and other, more successful superhero dramas like Smallville and Mutant X would debut the same season, The Tick was ahead of its time, even though the character himself had debuted some 15 years earlier.
Created by then-comics writer Ben Edlund in 1986, The Tick was a super-comedy centering on the titular hero, a dimwitted but lovable goof who donned a blue costume (complete with antennae) and vowed to protect The City. He was joined in his quest by sidekick Arthur, a former accountant who dressed as a moth. The Tick proved rather popular in his original comics incarnation, and in 1994, Fox Kids commissioned an animated series. That show (created by Edlund and starring Townsend Coleman in the title role) was a hit as well, and a few years later, Edlund decided to pitch a live-action version for a primetime audience.
Debuting on FOX in November 2001, The Tick was designed as “Seinfeld with superheroes,” and it showed. The half-hour series cared far less about action than it did about watching its characters sit around and bicker, or try to work through personal issues with the most uncomfortably hilarious of dialogues. The star, too, was familiar to Seinfeld fans – Patrick Warburton (who had played David Puddy on the famed “show about nothing”) filled the blue suit here, and his deep, thundering voice brought a level of comical gravitas to the character. David Burke played Arthur, the show’s hapless conscience (and audience avatar); other superheroes included Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey) and Batmanuel (a hilarious Nestor Carbonell).
The Tick was praised by critics, who enjoyed the show’s goofy satire and whimsical characters. But it quickly failed to find an audience, and was cancelled after a mere nine episodes. (The impromptu finale aired in January 2002.)
There were several factors which doomed The Tick from the start, beyond the standard “itchy trigger-finger” that FOX too often succumbed to in the early 2000s. The show’s humor was simultaneously broad and subtle, with clever comic-book subversions battling it out with an abundance of sexual humor. Edlund had wanted to keep the show somewhat family-friendly, but FOX pushed for edgier humor, the better to court its prime audience of twentysomething men. (They scheduled it after the raunchy Family Guy, which similarly struggled for ratings in the early years.)
By the time it hit the air, The Tick was an uneven blend of juvenile and adult humor, and the frenetic pilot (easily the weakest episode of the series) suffered from the clash of tones. Had the show more quickly found its footing (Edlund managed a better balance in the later episodes), perhaps the show would have more easily found an audience.
Still, there were other factors working against The Tick as well. The series operated without a laugh track – widely common nowadays, but still quite rare in the early 2000s. FOX had ushered in the single-camera sitcom a couple of years earlier with Malcolm in the Middle, and shows like Scrubs would utilize the formula quite successfully, but the absence of canned laughter made The Tick, with its costumed characters and goofy action scenes, look especially juvenile to the average channel-surfer.
There was also the fact that FOX didn’t own the series (Sony did), and thus didn’t put a great deal of effort into promoting it. The Tick premiered the same week as 24 (a series FOX did own), and it was clear which show the network was more invested in. Part of the reason for the marketing bias may be due to the timing: In the weeks after 9/11, a drama focusing on a hero who battled terrorists was the antidote the public needed; a show about a guy dressed as a giant bug probably felt too silly and lightweight for the era.
But even leaving all of this aside, The Tick was still a product ahead of its time. It was a show designed to laugh at superheroes, and audiences were not yet accustomed to the genre well enough to see their expectations subverted. In the ensuing years, we’ve had dozens of superhero films and TV shows (including multiple cinematic and TV “universes”), to the point that we know more than enough about these super-types and their associated tropes to comfortably laugh at them.
The Tick would feel right at home on television in 2017. And indeed, he will be returning shortly – this Friday, Amazon will release the first season of a new Tick TV series, with Peter Serafinowicz taking over the title role. Ben Edlund (after spending years away working on TV series like Angel and Supernatural) is again at the helm, preparing his creation for yet another reboot.
The irony of the latest incarnation is that, judging by the pilot (which Amazon released for a test run last year), this new version of The Tick will be a bit darker and more serious than previous iterations. The main character remains as goofy and clueless as ever, yet the surrounding story is less overtly humorous, with touches of the drama that pervades much of modern superhero storytelling.
Whether this latest version of The Tick succeeds – and whether Serafinowicz can properly fill the big blue hole left by Warburton – remains to be seen. But before those arguments begin (as the Internet has decreed they must), it is perhaps prudent to educate yourself in the art of the first live-action Tick. At only nine 22-minute episodes, the show is an extremely brief commitment, and it offers plenty of laughs throughout its short run. Find it, watch it, enjoy it… and bemoan the loss of a great big Tick that was squashed well before his time.
The Tick (2001) is available on DVD, and all episodes can be viewed for free on Crackle. The Tick (2017) drops its entire first season on Amazon Prime this Friday.