Stuff to do
Some people are easy to spoof. Celebrities, politicians, and superheroes, for example, all share a relation to power that separates them from the average person. This makes them easy targets for those pasty individuals and wordsmiths who never seem to get a break.
Ben Edlund was once just such a lowly person, a comic book creator struggling in one of the most volatile and narrow publishing industries in existence. In 1988, he wrote The Tick, a black-and-white independent series that spawned in overnight cult following. The comic book followed the adventures of a seven-foot, 400-pound insane asylum escapee in his never-ending battle with the forces of evil. The Tick is immensely powerful and immensely dumb, lacking any sort of cognitive skills, but feeling destined to be Protector of the People. This bright blue beacon of justice swept down on the city with a resounding thud, and it didn’t take long for Fox to buy the rights and produce the now classic animated series, which began airing Saturday mornings in 1994. Currently in rerun heaven, The Tick animated series was one of the more innovative Saturday morning cartoons, with sharp writing reminiscent of the live action Batman series of the 1960s.
Now, after canceling the cartoon in 1997, Fox has decided to go another round with Edlund’s mammoth creation in a live-action, prime-time series. Like the cartoon, this Tick stays true to the original concept, helped considerably by Edlund’s hysterical scripting (he’s also on board as executive producer). Thankfully, he’s lost none of his knack for devising sharp one-liners and sight gags.
The nigh-invulnerable Tick (Patrick Warburton) starts off in the pilot episode valiantly defending a bus station against the evil doings of a belligerent coffee machine, when he’s tricked by the exasperated station workers into boarding a bus to The City, where there’s “stuff to do.” There, he soliloquizes from the rooftops, leaping from building to building, leaving a trail of unintended destruction in his wake. Though he’s sworn to protect citizens and their possessions, the Tick causes more damage than he prevents. The irony of the Tick’s unknowing destructiveness speaks to the danger of good intentions backed by tremendous force, and it applies not only to fictional superheroes, but also to penal or political activity meant to mediate situations it inadvertently creates or perpetuates.
The Tick is aided and abetted by Arthur (David Burke), a mild-mannered accountant who, bored with being a regular working stiff, has decided to be a superhero. And so he dons a white moth costume that rather looks more like a bunny suit (as he is reminded by many who laugh at his ambitions, including his boss, played by Christopher Lloyd). The Tick, however, is impressed by his aspiration, and convinces Arthur to join him. Together, the designless duo thwart (the Tick likes to “thwart”) a gang of Russian postal terrorists and accidentally set loose a killer robot, the Red Scare, left over from 1979, when it was constructed to assassinate Jimmy Carter. The rest of the episode tracks the Tick and Arthur’s attempt to save Carter’s life… sort of.
They also run into other hapless superheroes, such as the sex-obsessed “Euro-trash” ladies’ man Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) and the icy feminist Captain Liberty (Liz Valley, in a very patriotic and provocative bodysuit). Apparently, if you want to be a superhero, all you have to do put on a costume of some kind, and reality takes a breather. These superheroes aren’t at all prepared to deal with anything, much less a devious device attacking a major metropolitan area. The Tick is something of an exception, although he’s just as likely to defeat a foe by exhausting his or her patience as by a head-butt.
Arthur acts as the audience’s touchstone; he’s the only character who intersects with our world in any way. While the live action hampers The Tick by forcing realism onto what’s basically a fantastical satire based on extensive exaggeration, it also helps humanize the characters. Still, if the show’s to survive, it will need to come up with some kind of progression. If the Tick is not going to develop (a “big blue egg” is how Edlund describes him), his sidekick Arthur can. It’s clear the series will use Arthur not only as the voice of reason (and he’s perpetually in that cheesy moth get-up, mind you—no “secret identities” for these superheroes), but also as the “human” character, with whom the audience can sympathize, because, like most of us, he’s just another guy, a pasty individual with dreams of being a superhero. He is introduced to the ways that power and justice really work (or don’t), through the overzealously misguided behavior of the Tick or the absurdities of good- and evil-doing. Arthur is in as much awe of the Tick and the surreal situations he helps bring about as anyone would be.
While Arthur may be the most recognizable character, the Tick is the centerpiece, and played to a tee by Warburton, as of now, most famous for playing Seinfeld‘s Puddy, a similarly oblivious macho type. With only his face visible (the rest of him encased in a rubber suit the size of a small Buick), Warburton brings the Tick to life flawlessly, conveying his cluelessness as cleverly as it can be done, almost so well that even Tick purists shouldn’t mind his lack of trademark mask; the antennae remain, curling and twitching as markers of the Tick’s limited emotions.
While The Tick is basically good comedy at which you can laugh out loud (unusual in sitcoms these days), it is also far from perfect. Some of the storytelling seems forced, revealing at times exactly the situation’s unreality, and the tight special effects budget limits the potential outrageousness. As well, half an hour is not enough time to develop much of anything, especially when one also has to fit in fight scenes. Hopefully, with time, the series can strike a balance, and maybe, after drawing in a steady viewing audience, be thrown a few more bucks. Given the chance to find its groove, however, The Tick should have no trouble finding popular and critical success. Fox had better give the show all the support it can, because nothing is as dangerous than an angry Tick—or, rather, an angry mob of disappointed Tick fans.