One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of short-lived TV shows. In this installment, The Tick, which aired nine episodes beginning in late 2001.
Superheroes are who we need them to be, when we need them to be it. During World War II, they brought the global fight against fascism into their pulpy pages, punching Nazis and advancing the causes of truth, justice, and other democratic ideals that count as “the American way.” In the ’60s, they were countercultural icons, muses for (and reflections of) Warhol and Lichtenstein, or relatable figures whose personal struggles fancifully mirrored society’s. The long hangover from that decade’s most ubiquitous caped crusader—the pop-art Boy Scout of ABC’s live-action Batman—went acrid in the ’80s, with Alan Moore and Frank Miller leading the charge to prove that superheroes could be taken seriously, dammit. Today, they are: as serious revenue generators, as serious objects of affection for millions of people, as seriously tiresome degenerations of the subversive strokes found in Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Killing Joke. (We see you, Zack Snyder.)
But when The Tick made its first move from pen-and-ink to flesh-and-blood at the turn of the 21st century, it seemed as though the culture at large didn’t need anything, or even want much, from its costumed crime fighters. The 1990s had been a roller-coaster period for the genre: The artistic highs of Batman: The Animated Series, the neon-streaked nadir of Batman And Robin. The creative freedom of Image Comics, the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Marvel. Superman died, and then came back as four different guys. The pouches. Oh, the pouches. The animated version of Ben Edlund’s dunderheaded, insect enigma was one of the decade’s bright spots, however, a full-throttle parody that found The Tick and his trusty chum Arthur protecting The City from the ludicrously dastardly likes of Chairface Chippendale, Brainchild, and the Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight. A primetime, live-action version of the character would be one more reason for fans to cry “Spoon!”
When The Tick joined Fox’s pilot slate in the winter of 2000, the first X-Men movie—and the first step toward our current era of superhero saturation—was still several months away. Writing in The New York Times in July of that year, columnist Frank DeCaro cites both X-Men and The Tick as part of “the return of the superhero.” By the time Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man could make good on that prediction, The Tick was a goner. It’s kind of a miracle the show made it to the air at all: The pilot sat on the shelf for more than a year. During its eventual nine-episode run, it could count on support from the TV press and the fans of The Tick’s escapades in comics and on Saturday mornings, but it failed to find a mass audience savvy enough about its Justice Leagues and regional Avengers branches to get on board with the show’s affectionate form of satire. In 2017, when one of the most acclaimed shows on TV is about Professor X’s illegitimate son, and the Guardians Of The Galaxy are at the center of a blockbuster film franchise—the time for a new Tick is nigh, and Amazon has heeded the call. But in 2000, this type of show stuck out like a lummox in royal-blue latex perched atop a rundown bus station.
Just as today’s Tick disguises a survivor’s narrative in prehensile antennae and sniping among evildoers, yesterday’s Tick had its own secret identity. It’s a low-concept high-concept sitcom, a super-Friends where the real action occurs during breaks from the action. The pilot, helmed by Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld, illustrates this brilliantly in the very first encounter between The Tick (Patrick Warburton) and his timid companion, Arthur (David Burke): Warburton clomps in and out of frame while the camera holds on Burke, who bobs and weaves to avoid flying henchmen and breakaway props. In DVD commentary, Sonnenfeld states that the scene originally called for more elaborate violence, but the production was running out of light, so they went with the lower-impact, jump-cut version. But the fight is so emblematic of the jokes that come after it, it’s hard to imagine the scene playing out any other way. It’s a 30-second dress rehearsal for a later installment, “The License,” that’s bookended by footage of the four primary heroes—The Tick, Arthur, Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey), and Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) emerging victorious from escapades only they’ll ever see.
That Seinfeld-esque framework arrives in the sole Tick solo outing from executive producer (and former Seinfeld staffer) Larry Charles. From the makeup of the main cast (three men, one woman) and the greasy spoon where they gather, to the focus on minutiae and the fact that both Charles and Warburton were Seinfeld alumni, a streak of “the show about nothing” runs through The Tick. And its shadow hung over the production: This was, after all, the era of “the Seinfeld curse.” The Michael Richards Show and the Jason Alexander vehicle Bob Patterson had both come and gone before The Tick premiered, and when the show found itself on the ropes next to the Julia Louis-Dreyfus oddity Watching Ellie, more than one article fingered the superhero parody as the curse’s latest victim. As the logic went, Warburton couldn’t escape his most prominent role to date: He was still the squinting, staring David Puddy. The actor had traded the Devils face paint for an insect’s cowl, but when viewers looked at The Tick, they still heard “High five.”
Of course, there was no Seinfeld curse, as any of Dreyfus’ seven Veep Emmys can tell you. And Warburton was proving himself to be more than Puddy even during The Tick’s short life span. Sonnenfeld describes the show’s star as “A man created to play The Tick”; Warburton attacks the material with the same gusto The Tick applies to his nightly patrols. And, by Odin’s beard, does he ever have a way with Edlund’s purple prose, The Tick’s habit of acting as his own narration box presaging the voice-acting career that was just starting to take off when Warburton was cast in the role. It’s yet another “created to play The Tick” facet of his performance: the conviction the character feels toward his calling mirrored in the conviction Warburton put behind words like “What a pleasure it is to shake hands with the womb that spilled Arthur into the world.”
Under the best of circumstances, pulling off the tone Edlund, Sonnenfeld, Charles, and company envisioned for The Tick would be a challenge. It’s a heightened universe populated by people speaking in flowery language, played straight—no angling for the laugh. Sonnenfeld, a filmmaker whose résumé is almost 100 percent whimsy (give or take a Get Shorty) has described a desire to capture an “almost realistic documentary version of this world,” which goes in a variety of directions throughout the series. The most common of those directions is an answer to the question “But what if this otherwise grounded story was told with superheroes?”: the hero-sidekick dynamic seen through the lens of a domestic partnership, or Arthur “coming out” to his family as “super.” There are episodes that do their genre deconstruction with the assistance of the banal and the bureaucratic, where The Tick’s lack of a secret identity prevents his vigilantism from being properly licensed by The City, or where a fellow hero’s alter ego complicates a lawsuit filed by Captain Liberty. And then there are straight-up capers like the gang’s farcical dalliance with corpse-disposal and celebrity impersonation in “The Funeral.”
It was a show with a big price tag and grand ambitions, with several strong voices working behind the scenes. Reflecting on that creative process for The Tick’s 2003 DVD release, Edlund said,
“It puts you in a position where you have to deal with a kind of committee-creation process, and a lot of things that come into it, one has to adapt to, or one can never adapt to. But they’ll still be there. I think that in part explains, if you noticed, there’s a kind of tonal inconsistency to the first nine episodes—or, the only nine episodes—of this primetime series.”
As funny as its writing and its performances can be, there is a lot of trial and error apparent in The Tick. The romantic relationship between Captain Liberty and Batmanuel runs hot and cold from episode to episode, as the production backpedals from a rooftop introduction in which Vassey and Carbonell lock lips within minutes of seeing one another. Liberty is, herself, a waste of a lot of good potential, Vassey’s knack for rapid-fire patter too frequently put in service of mooning over some male day player or other. Batmanuel, meanwhile, has a mercurial habit of being a trusted (if foolish) ally one week and a contemptible asshole the next.
The Tick’s intelligence level wavers, but his connection with Arthur is rock solid. There’s devotion there, like a dog to an owner (in terms of The Tick) or a role-reversed Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (in terms of Arthur). Playing the audience’s eyes into The City, Burke gets to express confusion and concern about how the world works, and you can see that in Arthur’s sense of responsibility toward The Tick. They’re a team, and no competing force can undo that. When the dysfunctional duo of Fiery Blaze and Friendly Fire introduces themselves to The Tick and Arthur in “Couples,” Friendly winds up projecting their unbalanced dynamic on his new friend and drawing him away from his partner. But in classic sitcom fashion, that just makes Arthur realize how good he had it with The Tick, comparatively. Their reconciliation has a similarly timeworn feel, only the people talking about completing each other are wearing skintight costumes. And they’re using words like this:
Arthur: “You’re bulletproof, for example. And I’m not.”
The Tick: “True. And it’s your firm grip on reality that keeps our ship on course.”
It’s the type of thing you can picture becoming the anchor of a theoretical second season of The Tick. As Edlund says on the DVDs, “If we had been given more time, if we had been able to get through a full season, I think we would’ve been able to iron out the places that felt rough, and the places where these characters were more than one character kind of competing for the same suit.”
They’re a team, but if there was one thing proven to vex that team, it was timing. After Fox decided to hold The Tick until midway through the 2000-2001 broadcast season, the network pocketed it as a precautionary measure in case of a Writers Guild Of America strike that never came to pass. Critics had already seen the pilot in the summer of 2000, and as they prepared their previews of the 2001-2002 season—when The Tick was scheduled for Thursdays at 8:30, beginning November 8—they mentioned the delay, the show’s scheduling opposite CBS powerhouse Survivor, or both. “Is Fox trying to flush this expensive series?” Rob Owen wondered in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with Fox executive Sandy Grushow countering that the network was fully behind The Tick, which had received a major promotional push during the 2001 World Series.
A firm premiere date was in place, but the entire TV season was disrupted by the terrorist attacks of September 11. By the time November 8 rolled around, the national mood had changed. If America was looking for a hero, it wasn’t one whose emotions were represented by the appendages springing from his head. When a bug finally swooped in to reignite the public interest in superheroes, his suit was patriotically colored; he hailed from New York; and he had his own, complicated relationship with the skyscrapers destroyed on 9/11. But The Tick wasn’t around to see Spider-Man pull off this daring feat—in January of 2002, Fox announced it was ordering no further episodes of the series.
Edlund named his creation for the seemingly indestructible pests he encountered during his New England childhood, and despite setbacks like the 2001 Tick’s cancellation, the franchise has proven similarly resilient. Like its predecessor, the new Amazon series is garnering headlines and positive notices, but it’s doing so in a world that knows who The Tick is supposed to be, and whom he’s supposed to be lampooning. Even with an actor who was destined to be The Tick, the Fox series suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. But a hero as strong as The Tick, and a team as solidly built as the one at the center of The Tick, can hold up to that challenge. 2001 wasn’t ready for the big blue bug of justice. 2017 is. Wicked men, you face The Tick—now, and always.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Weirdo.