The Three Ticks
Superheroes have gone mainstream. They stare back at us from every conceivable surface: movies, soda cans, and The CW. And every intellectual property under the sun — from Heathers to Will & Grace — is getting a second chance. So it makes sense to bring back an IP that has been knowingly goofing on superheroes since the ‘80s. This is the perfect time for another iteration of The Tick, Ben Edlund’s parody of all things comic book. This new Amazon series is the third TV show about a big blue bug and his nebbishy moth sidekick. Preceding it was a 2001 live-action sitcom starring Patrick Warburton and a Saturday morning cartoon featuring former Monkee Micky Dolenz as Arthur. Each version — cartoon, sitcom, and serialized prestige dramedy — brings something different to The Tick. In the interest of science, I watched all three shows to compare and contrast. Yes, I made a spreadsheet highlighting the parallels.
For the uninitiated, The Tick started as a parody of superheroes and all their nonsense. The titular character is a naive brick of a man, who is never seen out of costume and has no backstory. He is simply The Tick. He loves justice, hates villainy, and tends to narrate his life while standing on a rooftop. His sidekick is Arthur, a mild-mannered former accountant. While The Tick is nigh-invulnerable, Arthur is very squishy. Together they protect a city simply known as The City. Rounding out each version of the story are obvious parody characters: villains like Chairface Chippendale (a Dick Tracy-esque villain born from deformity), and fellow heroes like Overkill (an obvious Punisher ripoff) and American Maid (if Wonder Woman was Republican).
There are some story chunks that carry through each show. In each pilot, The Tick destroys Arthur’s apartment trying to figure out how it transforms into a crime-fighting lair (it doesn’t). The Tick also always tries to convince Arthur to join him in his cause because Destiny has “her warm hand on the small of your back, pushing,” which makes becoming a superhero sound like suicide.
That’s another thing all three Ticks have in common: the dim view most civilians have of those who would be superheroes. In the cartoon, it’s seen as an inherently selfish act, like going into showbiz. After taking up the spandex suit, Arthur has to go out of his way to prove to his sister Dot that he hasn’t become a total flake. When saving The City interrupts their dinner, she’s pissed. The 2001 show leans into a “supers=gay” metaphor that works …OKish. All the superheroes throw back tiki drinks at a superhero bar. Arthur has to “come out” to his family and is subsequently forced into conversion therapy. The 2017 series probably has the most realistic view of superheroes: Most people think it’s dangerous to the point of insanity, but it’s not the worst thing to do with your life.
Each of the three shows called The Tick have been in different genres, and each dwelled in the conventions of its format. The animated cartoon takes full advantage of its ability to create its own reality. Chairface Chippendale legit has a chair for a face, and one episode revolves around a souffle destroying The City. The 2001 sitcom has the fewest action scenes and the most people-sitting-around-a-diner scenes. The 2001 series was executive produced by Seinfeld alum Larry Charles, so it’s unsurprising many have called it “Seinfeld with capes.” And in this age of gritty reboots, the 2017 Tick grittily reboots one of its main characters.
Going all the way back to the comics, Arthur has always lusted for adventure, for something bigger than himself. That has been what motivated his superheroics. 2017 Arthur, on the other hand, was driven insane by the death of his father at the hands of a villain known as The Terror. The Terror has always been a part of the Tick rogues gallery, but never with a personal connection to the heroes. The whole Amazon series is a lot more personal; Arthur’s hero’s journey (with steps called out by The Tick) is the main, serialized plot — something The Tick has never had. I’m not sure it’s an entirely successful move. The Tick has always been about calling out the conventions of superhero stories, and stretching an origin story over six episodes feels less like subversion and more like business as usual. Investing the characters with emotions and stakes probably makes it a “better” show, in the prestige sense, but it’s also definitely less fun. If you’re coming to The Tick — a property whose most famous catchphrase is “SPOON!” — looking for feelings, you’re in luck. But I don’t know why you are the way you are, and I don’t understand why my wackadoo nonsense characters need to cater to you.
The 2017 Tick has fun elements. Peter Serafinowicz is living his best life as The Tick, yelling every sentence with the most generic American accent you’ve ever heard. Also bringing something to accent table is Alan Tudyk, as Dangerboat. But all previous Ticks had tons of other well-meaning but shitty superheroes in The City. One got a sense that there was a working system keeping the villainy in check. This is very much not the case in the 2017 show. You get more of a Gotham-style, “you can’t fight City Hall because it’s full of villains” vibe, which is all too close to real life. And because the show is focused on one villain, we miss the freak of the week shenanigans of the previous two series. I’ll take everything back if the second six episodes gives me a foe as silly as The World’s Most Comfortable Chair.