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Amazon’s The Tick throws the aggressively cheerful hero into a realistically bleak world

The Tick was a meta superhero before that was the norm. In 2017’s version, he’s a little lost.

Arthur + The Tick 4ever

The Tick, much like its electric blue protagonist, has an improbably miraculous survival story. What was once a comic in 1986 then became a pithy cartoon in 1994, which in turn became a short-lived sitcom in 2001, and now the Tick lives on yet again for Amazon.

The Tick creator Ben Edlund’s latest crack at bringing his hero and neurotic sidekick, Arthur, to the screen — with co-showrunner David Fury of 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — is in line with the character’s history, indulging in all the self-aware jokes that made The Tick stand out decades before meta punchlines became a superhero staple. But it’s also a little darker and a little more grounded in the real world and all its banal disappointments.

On the one hand, this newest iteration of The Tick — the first six episodes of which dropped on August 25, with six more to come in early 2018 — casts the Tick himself (played by Peter Serafinowicz) as the same relentlessly cheerful superweirdo he always has been. On the other, it also significantly deepens the characterization of Arthur (Griffin Newman), the Tick’s reluctant partner in solving crime, in a way that keeps bringing the show’s freewheeling comedy back down to earth.

This combination of the Tick’s hyperbolic strangeness and Arthur’s frantic attempts to stay grounded is what makes Amazon’s version of The Tick stand out among the rest — and, in the end, what keeps the show from cohering.

The Tick is a purposeful mashup of wildly varying tones, for better and for worse

The Terror terrorizes poor little Arthur, whose father was flattened not 50 feet away.

To be fair, I’m not sure cohesion is what The Tick is aiming for at all. Edlund’s newest take on the Tick’s bizarro world values the bleak realism of Arthur’s teetering mental state as much as it does finding new ways to joke about the inherent silliness of superheroes. It delights in making fun of itself, but also seriously considers how jarring it would be to have heroes scattered throughout the very real, often depressing world, like the Technicolor marshmallows in a bowl of otherwise disappointing Lucky Charms.

The best example of The Tick’s purposeful dissonance is its new take on the character of Arthur. He’s always been something of a nervous mess, but the 2017 version has a traumatic backstory, at least a few mental illness diagnoses, and a single-minded mission to track down the all-powerful supervillain who killed his father, fittingly named “the Terror” (a maniacal Jackie Earle Haley). One scene may have Arthur muttering a frantic assurance to himself that he’s not losing his mind, while the next features the Tick befriending a bodega cat while his news anchor baritone booms about seizing your destiny (which, according to the Tick, is “nice and warm,” like “the inside of bread!”).

All the while, Arthur keeps trying to keep one foot in the “normal is as normal does” world, with his constantly worried sister Dot (Valorie Curry) usually standing nearby or near a phone, knitting her brow in concern.

As Arthur takes his meds and resists the Tick’s constant insistence that he’s ignoring his glorious destiny of being a superhero himself, the villains circling them both are campy enough that they might as well still be cartoons.

Haley’s Terror — who supposedly died, though Arthur isn’t buying it — appears sporadically in Arthur’s fractured mind as a nightmarish vision of cackling, devilish glee. Miss Lint (Yara Martinez) — the Terror’s former right-hand woman whose electric hands tend to leave her with a halo of static lint — grits her teeth in frustration while facing down everyone from culturally appropriative local crime boss Ramses (Michael Cerveris) to her slacker ex-husband Derek (Bryan Greenberg) to the Tick and Arthur themselves. Meanwhile, a masked vigilante named “Overkill” certainly is that, what with his gravelly voice and snarled “fuck yous” at his snippy computer.

At this point, the self-referential wit of The Tick isn’t nearly as rare as it was when Edlund’s comic debuted in a local newspaper. But you still wouldn’t hear Peter Quill declaring that it’s time to go “mano a monomyth,” and even Deadpool doesn’t have the sly wit to pull off something like The Tick’s sidebar about a groundbreaking legal case starring a feline hero named “Katmandude.”

So, sure, The Tick can be a little confusing as it bounces between tones. But when it’s clever, it’s really clever — and in a way few other superhero adaptations can claim.

The first six episodes of The Tick are currently available to stream on Amazon.

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