Monday, December 2, 2013

Lessons from odd places: The Tick (2001)

I was a huge fan of the 1994 animated series The Tick, starring an obtuse, nigh invulnerable superhero named the Tick, who had no particular tick-related abilities besides his antennae. He was partnered with sad sack ex-accountant Arthur--who dressed in a moth suit that was continually mistaken for a bunny costume; and had several parody superhero friends, including American Maid and Der Fledermaus. When I was in high school, this show really hit hard with its evisceration of superhero tropes. For instance, when the Tick attacks a group of villains called The Idea Men, he asks them what the big scheme is behind their attempt to ransom the city's dam.
Tick: OK Idea Man! What’s the big idea?
Idea Man: Well, we thought we’d steal a lot of money, and then we’d be rich, and we wouldn’t have to work anymore!

Still, I never got around to watching the 2001 live-action version of The Tick--even though I read the comics--largely because it seemed like a terrible idea. I mean, I loved the cartoon, with its mix of absurdism and (don't laugh) gritty reality. For instance, Tick once fought this terrible Soviet supervillain--which is absurd. Except since the Cold War was decades ago, this ancient supervillain was just that: ancient. Not really the villainous dynamo he once was, which is why I say it had some gritty reality mixed in. This supervillain also hung out with a man-eating cow, which could go either way.

But the comics were a little too dark for me: instead of just being an obtuse superhero, the fact of the Tick's serious issues were sometimes alluded to. I mean, here's a guy who doesn't know who he is and is probably an escapee from a mental institution. In bright, animated colors, that's funny and ignorable. But put Patrick Warburton in a big blue suit and what you basically have is the story of a mentally-challenged man-child and his overwhelmed caretaker. For instance, there's the episode where the Tick has to learn about death.

Not exactly hilarious.

And yet, the show is funny, if a little sad; and has some good lessons for writers interested in TV.

Which is what I wanted to talk about and the rest is just preamble. Which I won't cut because I love the animated Tick so.

For instance, take the episode "The License," where the Tick's identity becomes an issue: he doesn't have a superhero license, so Arthur tries to help him find his real identity. The Tick is identified as some woman's husband--which in another show would bring us to a plot about a black widow or a scheme. But no: she's just a mentally-unstable woman who is so lonely that she has delusions of being married to some men who dress up in costumes. And though the Tick still sort of thinks he's married to her, his desire to be a superhero tells him that this isn't going to work out.

But what's great about this episode is how this question of identity gets replayed in the sub-stories for the other main three characters: sidekick Arthur without the Tick is just an accountant; the American Maid-analog Captain Liberty tries to hide her superhero identity in order to date a normal; while the hyper-sexed Batmanuel tries to raise his visibility by hiring a PR agent and planting photos in the newspaper.

Now, those last two subplots don't really affect the main story (it's very much A: Tick finds wife, Arthur loses Tick; B: Captain Liberty hides suit; C: Batmanuel highlights suit), but you can see how, even in The Tick, the episode is structured by a common theme that helps unify the episode.

1 comment:

  1. I've been putting off watching this for a while. Maybe I should? I was a huge fan of the animated series and loved "The Terror" (and Stalin's nephew was it?).