First created by Ben Edlund (Firefly, Supernatural) as an affectionate parody of superheroes back in 1986, that big, blue, boisterous bastion of heroism, the Tick, has been standing tall for truth, justice, and all that good stuff ever since. The bouncing behemoth has hit our TV screens twice before, in a three season cartoon series debuted in 1994, and then in a brief and much missed 2001 live action series starring Patrick “Puddy” Warburton, which managed to chalk up a mere nine episodes. Now he’s back, he’s streaming on Amazon, and his latest incarnation might just be the best yet.
As played by the brilliant Peter Serafinowicz, the Tick a blue-suited, muscle-bound “nigh-invulnerable” superhero possessed of the strength of “…ten, perhaps twenty men – a crowded bus stop of men.” Given to spouting straight-faced but absurd aphorisms about justice and destiny, the Tick has come to The City to protect it from evildoers of all stripes – and to act as conscience, role model, and life coach to depressed accountant Arthur (Griffin Newman).
Despite who’s hogging the title, The Tick is actually Arthur’s story, with Edlund and his co-conspirators recognising that as much fun as the blundering, not-too-bright Tick might be, he doesn’t have much of an arc – and, in fact, he’s better off without one. Arthur, by contrast, is a fallible, empathetic, and somewhat tragic figure. He lost his father to collateral damage from a super-powered battle involving villain The Terror (a wonderfully hammy Jackie Earle Haley), and has since been plagued by unspecified mental health issues and relies on his nurse sister, Dottie (Valorie Curry), to keep him from getting too caught up in his conspiracy theories and superhero obsessions.
All that changes when Arthur finds himself in possession of a high tech power suit that, for reasons never entirely explored, looks, like a moth, and in the orbit of the gleefully heroic Tick, who urges Arthur to take of the never ending battle against evil. The show toys with the notion that the Tick is actually a manifestation, Fight Club style, of Arthur’s mental issues, before wisely discarding the idea. No, he’s just the leading edge of the weird wider world the show inhabits; a world that has had superheroes since the Tunguska blast of 1908 (shout out to X-Files and Ghostbusters fans alike), and contains Egyptian-themed crime syndicates, at least one talking dog (who has written a memoir about his time as a superhero sidekick) and a dark and brooding vigilante (Scott Speiser as Overkill, a riff on the Punisher, Batman, and all points in between) whose base of operations is a Knightrider-esque talking boat voiced by Alan Tudyk.
It’s gloriously silly stuff, using the whole swathe of superhero lore as grist for the comedy mill. It’s impossible not to crack a smile when Serafinowicz’s Tick forces his four-colour worldview onto the more drab everyday milieu around him, at one point annoying a shopkeeper who really just wants to give his protection money to the local goons rather than get caught up in all this heroic nonsense, at another delighting Arthur’s stepfather simply by turning up to his 60th birthday party and just being himself.
There may not be method to this madness, but there is a thematic point. “What if Arthur is awesome?” the Tick muses to Dottie at one point, who is dead set against all these super shenanigans. “What if you are, too, and you just don;t know it?” For all its absurdity, Both the Tick and The Tick are big on heart and heroism, and that’s what makes it special. Yes, it’s incredibly funny; yes, it has nerd cred to spare, but it’s those punch-the-air moments of triumph that really bring the show home. “The hero inside all of us” is a hell of a cliche, but The Tick revels in both mocking such cliches and then reminding us that such homilies are well-worn for a reason. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and it requires absolute sincerity in order to stick the landing. Like Mystery Men and Galaxy Quest, this is a parody that absolutely adores the genre it’s ripping strips off of, bombastic excesses and all.
Broadly speaking, such genre-specific parodies are only successful when the conventions they’re lampooning are widely enough known for a big audience to get the joke. Given that we’re about 20 years into the Modern Age of the Cinematic Superhero, the time is right for The Tick to rise again. Let’s hope he sticks around.