One Steaming Hot Cup of Justice
In 2001, The Tick, that Big Blue Bug Of Justice, hit tv in live-action form, courtesy of Fox. The series was much anticipated by fans of the popular comic book, who believed his adventures in titles like “Early Morning of a Million Zillion Ninjas” and “Hi-Rise HiJinx,” made him worthy of rubbing shoulders with Batman, Superman, and the rest of the fabled League of Justice. But our lantern-jawed chum soon found that his greatest adversary was neither Destroyo nor The Terror, but the very network for which he toiled so selflessly!
A send-up of comic book crime fighters and the world at large, The Tick was both playfully subtle and gloriously over the top. A big, goofy living comic book seasoned with a dash of Seinfeld-esque cynicism, The Tick was a TV rarity: a melange of styles that worked. Featuring a pitch-perfect performance by Patrick Warburton (Seinfeld‘s David Puddy) as The Tick, the show boasted a creative team that included Barry Sonnenfeld, Larry Charles (Seinfeld), and Ben Edlund, who came up with The Tick character in 1986 and developed it into a comic book and animated series.
The show was cherished by critics and a base of rabid fans, but proved too quirky for Fox executives, who apparently didn’t get its blend of cheeky fun, extreme silliness, and social satire. The Tick was cancelled after eight episodes. Despite fans’ pleas and petitions, The Tick joined the ranks of once and future Fox castoffs like Andy Richter Controls The Universe and this summer’s Keen Eddie, promising series whose plugs were pulled too early.
But you can’t keep a good superhero down. The self-proclaimed “Wild Blue Yonder” now returns in Columbia’s two-disc DVD set of the show’s eight episodes, plus a ninth that was never broadcast. If anything, The Tick is even more enjoyable on DVD than it was on TV, presented in glorious 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen that shows off its pastel-colored art direction, and a Dolby surround sound that highlights the inventive sound effects. So, when the metal-suited Destroyo walks across a room, each step sounds like someone is banging on an empty trashcan, making this deliciously outlandish character that much more ridiculous.
For those who are unaware of his legend, The Tick is a giant blue bug with highly expressive antennae, on a quest to keep the world safe from evil. He does this not for fame or money, but for the love of a demanding mistress named Justice. Patrolling the streets of a city called The City, he’s assisted by his sidekick Arthur (David Burke), an ex-accountant who dresses like a moth; Latin lothario Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell); and Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey), a government agent who kicks butt.
Unlike the heroes of Gotham City or Metropolis, whose identities are secret, the crime fighters of The City are rarely out of costume; they appear at the laundromat, carrying bags of groceries, or throwing up after they drink too much. This focus on the mundane details of their daily lives reveals that even superheroes have personal problems. So, when the Batmanuelmobile breaks down, Batmanuel has to take the subway home; “I almost got mugged,” he admits sheepishly.
Arthur serves as the audience’s point of entry to this absurd world, as he quickly discovers that superheroes are a cynical, self-centered bunch and vanquishing villains is not always high on their priorities list. Batmanuel, shameless self-promoter that he is, only snaps into action when a photo op presents itself, mostly content to use his dubious fame to pick up women; and Captain Liberty fights crime for the tidy government paycheck that allows her to live in a spacious loft-style apartment.
Dressed in a white jumpsuit with long, thin ears that makes him look more like a rabbit than a moth, Arthur can fly, aided by a giant set of wings that sprout from his backpack. While he believes crime fighting is his destiny, his real enemy turns out to be a tremendous lack of self-confidence. But when he saves Jimmy Carter from a marauding Russian robot in the series pilot, Arthur demonstrates that, if he doesn’t have superpowers, he certainly has heart.
The Tick, however, is the real deal. Dressed in a massive blue muscle-suit (think Batman without the cape and nipples) that makes him nearly invincible, he possesses amazing strength and can move at the speed of light. The first three minutes of the Sonnenfeld-directed pilot tell us everything we need to know about The Tick. Introduced while protecting the local bus station, he cuts an imposing figure, standing on the station rooftop, stoic, hands on his hips, unerring gaze on the lookout for evil. “I am the front line in a never-ending battle of Good and Not-So-Good,” he proclaims in voice-over. “Someone’s got to don the oven mitts of all that’s right and strangle the red-hot throat of all that’s wrong.”
Born on another planet, The Tick has only a rudimentary grasp of the human condition. (Alas, we never learn much about The Tick, such as where he came from or how and why he became a superhero.) But unlike a certain caped crusader, he also doesn’t let human emotions like hate and revenge blur his sharply focused vision of right and wrong. For The Tick, all evil must be vanquished, even if it’s “only” a leaky faucet. So, when he attacks the bus station’s coffee vending machine, he does so with the gusto Batman exhibits when taking on The Joker. “So Vending Menace, we meet again,” he bellows, lifting the machine off the ground and shaking it violently. “Fearless bandit, empty your bladder of that bitter black urine men call coffee. It has its price and its price has been paid.”
Lines like this (and the show is full of them) are perfectly delivered by Warburton, who seems to be channeling Adam West (TV’s Batman) through Joe Friday. He crafts an endearing character, as dim-witted and socially inept as he is heroic. “Look!” The Tick roars joyfully as he bites into a fortune cookie. “A secret message… from my teeth!” Encased in his blue suit, Warburton’s facial expressions range from clueless befuddlement to righteous gallantry. His is a wonderfully nuanced performance, one that demands repeat viewings to appreciate fully.
Sadly, The Tick‘s droll humor may have led to its early demise. Originally broadcast without a laugh track, the show’s sly double entendres may have been missed. Racing along at breakneck speed, the show rarely stops long enough to allow viewers to savor the wisdom of The Tick’s poetic musings on life. “Sure, you sold Arthur down the river,” The Tick tells Arthur’s family after they have him committed to an asylum, in “Arthur, Interrupted.” “But we can use that spilt milk to put out your burnt bridge.”
Audiences may have also failed to notice the show’s thinly veiled social satire. Daring to make an anthrax joke shortly after 9/11, it also had a lot to say about minority rights (the members of the elite League of Superheroes are all white males, which prompts Captain Liberty to sue for discrimination), the court systems (a perplexed Tick is outraged to learn that an obviously guilty criminal can go free), and relationships of the straight (Batmanuel and Captain Liberty know each other intimately) and gay varieties.
In “Arthur, Interrupted,” it’s not hard to read between the lines as Arthur prepares to tell his family about his new “lifestyle,” and in “Arthur Needs His Space,” Batmanuel and Captain Liberty are bemused by the fact that The Tick and Arthur spend so much time together, and often finish each other’s sentences. While not as scathing as SNL‘s “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” the show makes amusing observations on the sometimes puzzling relationships between male superheroes and their boyish sidekicks.
The Tick may have been too clever and original for its own good, and some see it as a crime that it was cancelled so quickly. Bringing The Tick back in this sweet DVD set, Columbia serves up a steaming hot cup of justice.