Before Their Time: The Tick (2001)
Comic book heroism is ridiculous when you think about it. When its characters aren’t brooding over their city, they’re tearing it up in pursuit of evildoers. They square off against villainous counterparts in a never-ending pas de deux whose absurdity is narrated by both in utterly fantastic language. Costumes conceal faces but leave little else to the imagination.
Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe exposed – however unintentionally – the preposterousness of the genre, Ben Edlund was poking at it with a boisterous blue superhero he called The Tick. Super-sized, super-powered, and super-oblivious, The Tick was born as a high school doodle and first went public in 1986, as a mascot for Edlund’s local comic shop, New England Comics. Edlund developed a comic strip and eventually a series of comic books featuring the character. Fox took note in 1994, and The Tick graced Saturday morning cartoon rooftops for three seasons before his TV life came to a seeming close. But as Y2K loomed, Barry Sonnenfeld and Ben Edlund reimagined the character as the star of a live action sitcom. This time, they were less interested in superheroism conquering supervillainy than they were in asking: “What do superheroes do when nothing’s going on?“ The answer turned out to be more Seinfeld than MCU, “a superheroic portrait of human lameness“ whose comedy was at once unexpected, occasionally surreal, and wholly relatable.
The live action Tick series followed the exploits of its titular character (Patrick Warburton), his sidekick Arthur (David Burke), and their friends and fellow superheroes Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell spoofing The Dark Knight) and Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey as the anti-Lynda Carter). Well, “exploits” might be too grand a word (although The Tick does crush a few costumed malefactors). “Misadventures” would be more accurate. In the spirit of the original comic, the show favored character beats over boss fights. So, in between defeating baddies, our heroes still had to come down from the rooftops to deal with bosses and laundry and the DMV, to battle recalcitrant plumbing and endure awkward dates and live with bad decisions. They’re not bad people, but they are people, and they’re not much better at adulting than the rest of us.
Arthur’s commitment to heroism is tempered by his totally rational fear of certain, fiery death. Batmanuel and Captain Liberty fight the good fight without the innocence or idealism of their youth, the former concealing his insecurities behind a cocky suavity and the latter behind a killer right hook. Their vacillations between duty and disillusionment fuel an on-again, off-again thing that seems as bad an idea when they’re together as when they’re not. The Tick alone is untouched by any of this drama, as impervious to the slings and arrows of adulthood as to the fiery projectiles of Apocalypse Cow. While Arthur cowers, Batmanuel preens, and Captain Liberty frets, The Tick lurches gleefully from one battle to the next, his antennae communicating what little he does not announce. Neither evil nor reason nor copyeditors can withstand him; the phone bill doesn’t stand a chance.
I’d tell you more, but it’s nearly impossible to do that without spoiling any of the nine episodes that comprise the show’s only season. The Tick’s marriage of comic book heroism and adult drudgery was smart and weird and funny, an unclassifiable original, doomed to suffer the fate of all genre-defying programs: Fox chucked it into an unsustainable time slot (against a wildly popular reality show), made nearly zero effort to promote it, and complained its ratings didn’t merit its production costs before pulling the plug.
In spite of its untimely end nearly two decades ago, the series holds up well. The tone is consistent and the costume design is amazing. The whole cast seems to be having fun, but none more than Patrick Warburton, whose affection for his “big, goofy, charismatic lunatic” is abundantly evident. (Fun fact: The production team redesigned the costume to keep Warburton’s face visible. His wackily eloquent facial expressions are accentuated by the remote-controlled antennae atop his head, which remain one of the most understatedly funny things I’ve ever seen in a live-action TV show.) Even now, The Tick stands up alongside spiritual descendants like Robot Chicken and The Venture Bros., no less adept (if more PG) at mining comedy from unusual people in ordinary situations. The series’ continuing popularity inspired Amazon to order a pilot, and eventually a full season, of a new live-action show, this time starring Peter Serafinowicz as The Tick. Edlund, Sonnenfeld, and Warburton – who have all spoken fondly of the original sitcom in the intervening years – are listed as producers. If the pilot, which aired last year, is any indication, The Tick has lost none of his overwrought metaphors or manic energy. Watch them both, and let me know who you think wears it better.
HOW TO WATCH: The complete show is available on DVD, and streaming on Amazon and Hulu. The streaming services have the episodes in the wrong order, though; this page has a correctly ordered list. If that’s too much trouble, at least be sure to watch the pilot first and “The Terror” last.
MUST WATCH: “The Tick vs. Justice” highlights everyone’s neuroses, exploring everything that happens after superheroes drop off a neatly gift-wrapped supervillain at the police station.
FAVORITE LINES: “Empty your bladder of that bitter black urine men call coffee!”
“I sure would like a slice of your righteous combat pie.”
“When the compass says iceberg, it’s my job to hire a band.”
“She gets $5.25 an hour! She doesn’t make enough to act nefarious!”
“You know, when he finds out who wears the cape in the relationship….”
“Jehosephat, woman! Crime IS my dessert!”
“Wonder Woman was right. This is what happens when you date Europeans.”
“Let’s not keep her waiting. She might start to perspire and alarm the neighborhood cats.”
“I’m impressed! I didn’t know the Pentagon read Peek-a-Boom.”
“Hmmm…something familiar about that twitchy barrister.”
“Another urban myth dispelled: Ninjas don’t bounce.”
“You haven’t told your mother that you’re — super?”
“I should brush my teeth. I’d like to die with clean teeth.”
PAIR WITH: Chinese food, beer, and poor professional choices.
WATCH FOR: In spite of filming only nine episodes, The Tick scored guest appearances from Christopher Lloyd, Ron Perlman, Armin Shimerman, and Dave Foley (of Kids in the Hall). It was also written and directed by a crack team of comedy luminaries: directing credits include Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Men In Black, and A Series of Unfortunate Events), Danny Leiner (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), and Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest). Christopher McCulloch – AKA Jackson Publick, co-creator of The Venture Bros. – also wrote for the show, after getting his start with Edlund storyboarding for the animated series. Both Sonnenfeld and McCulloch met Patrick Warburton through The Tick, and would go on to cast him, respectively, as the narrator in A Series of Unfortunate Events and Brock Samson in The Venture Bros.
AFTERWARDS: Check out the new live-action series, which premieres on Amazon on August 25th, or check out the comics, or watch the animated series, which is mostly (but not entirely) available on DVD.