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Stream this: The Tick is the perfect superhero show for our times

Amazon Video’s superpowered satire finds the humor in the characters who dominate pop culture in the 2010s.

The Tick
Arthur (Griffin Newman, center) and The Tick (Peter Serafinowicz, right) meet a new character played by John Hodgman.
Myles Aronowitz/Amazon Video
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When Chicago debuted on Broadway in 1975, it was generally well-received, despite some reviewers finding it a bit too over-the-top in its satire of crime, celebrity, and show business. It ran for two years, always in the shadow of the smash hit A Chorus Line (which had opened around the same time). And then it closed.

But in 1996, Chicago came back to Broadway, in a new production that only further played up the idea of criminal defendants becoming glitzy superstars. Suddenly, the show felt as if it had found its era. The same story that felt wild and over-the-top in 1975 felt dead-on in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial and many other big trials of the era. That revival is still running to this day.

This is all to say that in 2019, the superhero spoof The Tick, which just debuted its 10-episode second season on Amazon Video, has found its era. The character was invented by comics creator Ben Edlund, who debuted the big blue guy in 1986 as the mascot for a comics shop. From there, The Tick has been a comics character (with his first issue published in 1988), an animated TV show (which debuted in 1994), and a live-action TV show (2001). And all along, the character has been the epitome of a “cult favorite.”

In all iterations, The Tick has played around with the wildest elements of comic book lore, simultaneously parodying, dissecting, and celebrating superhero worlds. Fond of non sequiturs and hyper-earnestness, the Tick was the kind of superhero who most made sense in a world that was utterly nonsensical, which is what superhero worlds inevitably become.

But the earlier TV iterations of The Tick were broadcast in worlds where superheroes weren’t at the center of pop culture in the way they are now. And the smartest thing that Amazon's spin on the character (whose first season was released in two parts across 2017 and 2018) has done is keep the story simple, while taking the idea that The Tick exists in a superhero world seriously — so seriously that its heroes often have to complete paperwork (I assure you this is hilarious).

The gags don’t stop there. This universe’s spin on Superman, Superian (Brendan Hines) grows frustrated as he watches cable news talking heads complain about his actions. The Tick himself (played by Peter Serafinowicz) searches vainly for an origin story, since his memory loss prevents him from having one. There’s a supervillain named Lobstercules and a heroic boat named Dangerboat, for God’s sake.

I’m speaking as if The Tick made a conscious choice to abandon the things that made it so cult-y in the past, in favor of some more accessible type of storytelling. And on some level it did, since you can easily leap into this series without having seen any previous version of The Tick.

But I’m not sure the show really made such a choice. Instead, our reality has simply become more accessible to the sorts of storytelling we see on The Tick. Superheroes are so omnipresent in pop culture that jokes about them and the ridiculous powers they could have are easier to understand, even if you don’t know exactly that this new character is a sly riff on the obscure DC Comics hero Plastic Man.

However, Amazon’s The Tick is also the most grounded take on this story yet. It’s centered less on the big blue guy than it is on his sidekick Arthur (played by Griffin Newman, who, full disclosure: I’ve been on his podcast, and he’s been on mine, which is basically friendship) and on Arthur’s sister, Dot (Valorie Curry). Both characters are trying to find a way to put the traumatic death of their father — which occurred when they were children — behind them. Arthur finds a moth-like suit that gives him his own powers; in season two, Dot tries to invent her own meaning for herself, in a sly wink to how rarely these sorts of stories give women powers or storylines of their own.

The Tick has always considered what it means to live in a world of superheroes and villains, to know that your life could be changed or ruined by one at any moment. What makes it so relevant in 2019 is that we all kind of live in that world, too, if only by proxy. But where so many other superhero stories nowadays focus on the heroes themselves, The Tick stays just as focused on its heroes’ ground-bound pals, whose powers aren’t always as obvious.

The Tick is streaming on Amazon Video.

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