One of the better developments brought on by the ubiquity of DVD’s (besides ridding the world of dusty VHS tapes) has been the ready availability of just about every TV show, ever. Plus, cult shows like Arrested Development, Mr. Show, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared have been given second chances to flourish in the DVD market.
But another, more insidious, byproduct has come of the ascension of forgotten TV shows on DVD: unequivocally terrible shows are also allowed second lives on DVD. Terrible shows like USA’s Swamp Thing.
Originally run on the USA Network in the early ‘90s, Swamp Thing has become a favorite among B-movie nerds and lovers of pop-cultural garbage, thanks to constant re-runs on the Sci-Fi Network. Now, a portion of the series’ third season has been released to accompany the release (in January) of the series’ first 22 episodes. But viewed through this new lens of a DVD set, Swamp Thing: The Series Volume 2, which compiles the “first” (more on the necessity for quotes later) 26 episodes of the show’s 49-episode third season in a four-disc set, clocking in at around nine hours (with no extras to speak of), is but a marathon of bad clichés, disjointed plot lines, lame acting, and even lamer stories devoid of any ironic pop culture worth at all.
For those who haven’t spent intimate time with Swamp Thing, the character in one of DC’s lesser known comics, a bit of a primer. Swamp Thing follows the exploits of Dr. Alec Holland, a Louisiana scientist who is turned into a living and breathing plant after a horrible accident involving a formula that would turn desserts into forests. He gets his kicks in the Louisiana bayou by fighting his enemy, the evil scientist Anton Arcane (who when you get down to it, is just as evil as Holland pre-accident), who is always polluting, trying to become immortal, or using a fringe religion (from something he believes the Mayas practiced to Voodoo) to gain power.
In the series, Swamp Thing is played by Dick Durock, the man unfortunate enough to star in the second film iteration, the one that wasn’t directed by Wes Craven, that is derided as ruining the work Craven did on the first version in 1982. Durock’s Thing is about as expressive as you’d expect a guy made out of peat moss to be, which is to say not much. Arcane is played by Mark Lindsay Chapman (who resurfaced last year in the terrible Jared Leto vehicle about the John Lennon assassination, Chapter 27, as Lennon himself) who is the typical early ‘90s villain: he wears a Member’s Only jacket, has helmet hair, and is so smarmy that he leaves you feeling dirty. (And as an aside, how unlikely would it be that two of the world’s most brilliant and evil scientists would be living in small-town Louisiana? I often found myself more perplexed by that notion than that of how a man could turn into a pile of grass.)
The main weakness of the DVD set is that it reveals all of the problems with the series when it originally aired. Because production costs were mostly shoestring, and the network wanted as many episodes ready to run at a time, many of the episodes were shown out of order in their original run (and in syndication, and on this DVD set) to the point where the first 13 of the series were run nearly completely backwards plot-wise. So in actuality, the episodes are sequenced by when they were run, and not when they were produced, which would have led to plot cohesion. Why this problem wasn’t fixed for the DVD’s is a perplexing issue.
This new DVD set encounters many of the same problems, as most of the episodes seem to exist as lone entities; self-contained story-lines that don’t reach a conclusion, or get further explanation until many, many episodes later, or not all. The first episode of the set, titled “Night of the Dying”, introduces a sub-plot about how Swamp Thing gets an elixir to cure himself, and refuses, claiming he is content to stay the way he is. In the very next episode, “Love Lost”, he mentions casually that his cure had failed. He is actually referring to a different episode (near as I can figure, “Better Angels”) that appears three episodes later. Confusing? Imagine trying to watch this episode after episode.
But, in a way, this production snafu makes the series feel like more of a comic than any other superhero movie or TV show. Plotlines are introduced and forgotten in 22 minutes, and picked up at the whim of the series, with no explanation (or very little), just like when comics are written by different writers from series to series (or issues to issues).
But at the same time, the lack of story continuity also leaves very little room for the actual message of the series (that polluting the environment is like, awful…especially when it’s committed by a gross looking dude in a silk jacket) which is lost in the ensuing confusion. Even when the message is right there for the taking (the standard ‘90s plotline of “drugs are really bad for you” of “Swamp of Dreams”), it’s so seeped in triteness (Swamp Thing gets ripped on bird eggs and trips balls) that it is impossible not to bust up laughing.
Swamp Thing was originally slotted to run at 100 episodes, but petered out 20-some episodes after this set, at 72. It’s not hard to see why even USA refused to let the series run its course: it’s so bad it hurts to watch (I came down with bursitis). In fact, it may be one of the worst television shows to make it past the five-episode mark (Walker Texas Ranger be damned).