I am the wild blue yonder. The front line in a never ending battle between good and not so good. Together with my stalwart sidekick, Arthur, and the magnanimus help of some other folks I know, we form the yin to villany's malevolent yang. Destiny has chosen us. Wicked men, you face The Tick.
— The Tick live-action TV show intro
After the big blue bug's cartoon show was cancelled in 1996, The Tick's fans begged for more, and the Fox Network gave it to them in 2001. What we got was a mixed blessing.
If I were to describe The Tick in one catchy soundbite, it would be Seinfeld with funny costumes — except Kramer and George are the star and costar. Quite unlike the cartoon, the show focused on the characters of The Tick, Arthur, Captain Liberty, and Batmanuel; mostly everyday life as it applies to superheroes rather than a supervillain of the week. Although people who have actual superpowers occasionally show up, there is very little action and almost no display of super abilities. Like the 2000 movie The Specials, The Tick uses the superhero genre as a comic backdrop for stories that are sillier for having people in tights running around.
The Tick himself is played by Patrick Warburton, who most people would recognize as David Puddy from Seinfeld. He's certainly built right for the part and has a square jaw and a good shouty voice — essential for The Tick. His costume is a foam rubber looking muscle suit with antennae on his head. The antennae weird me out. Half the time they look puppet-controlled and half the time they look CGI. I suppose it's possible they used both effects depending on the situation. They add a bit of extra expression to The Tick's face and provide some eye candy during long dialogue sequences. The Tick is easily the funniest part of the show, his comically overblown monologues familiar to any fan continue to be the high point of the series. Although the show's budget doesn't allow for too much, I also found his casual displays of super-strength entertaining.
Unfortunately the live-action series seemed to miss what I thought was the funny part about The Tick. In the comic and the cartoon, he was like a child trying to act like an adult. This, to my way of thinking, is funny. The Tick didn't live in the same world everyone else did, and he was never forced to. He was a man with no past and no identity, as though he simply stepped out of a silver-age comic book and expected the world to be like that, and simply ignored those inconvenient parts of it that weren't. The Tick had no secret identity and seemed unaware that he was wearing a costume. He was simply... The Tick.
The live-action Tick seemed more like a man who had forgotten that he ever had a past. He came across not as a child trying to be an adult, but an adult who acts like a child. He is occasionally forced to face the real world and deals with it by simply refusing to pay attention. This is more annoying than funny, and irritates me on the same level as Adam Sandler movies.
As for the rest of the cast, Arthur (David Burke) is still an accountant who buys a moth suit and quits his dull job for the exciting life of a superhero, however ill-suited he is to the lifestyle. He's the only voice of sanity and reason in the cast, which more often than not actually just gets in the way. Although everyone assumes the powerless Arthur is the sidekick, he's clearly the brains of the duo and often resolves the episode's conflict.
Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) and Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey) are obvious knock-offs of Die Fledermaus and American Maid from the cartoon show (who are themselves parodies of Batman and Captain America). Due to copyright issues I do not pretend to understand, the live-action show was able to use anything from the comic but not from the cartoon show, hence the necessary change. The two are made more human and given more character development though for the live-action show.
Although Batmanuel is still cowardly, ineffectual, and entirely too full of himself (and fancies himself a ladies' man), he's more than the one-dimensional comic relief the cartoon character was. He clearly desires to have all of the advantages of being a superhero (fame, women, his picture in the newspaper) without actually having to fulfill the responsibilities of the post (being a role model, helping people in need, fighting evil).
Captain Liberty has more of a direct connection to the US Government than American Maid ever did. I gather that she was one of the few competent superheroes in The City and got most of the official recognition until The Tick showed up, with his nigh-invulerability, super-strength, and blustery attitude, and stole her press. As a result she often displays fits of childish jealousy against him and once tried to get him killed. She has an on-again off-again relationship with Batmanuel because she has no luck in the dating scene (the civilians are too intimidated and the heroes are too egocentric) and he's always available.
Overall, the series was twice as good as most of the other dreck you'll find on TV, but Fox has a way of getting good shows cancelled early (see also Futurama and Firefly), and The Tick is no exception, lasting a mere 9 episodes. They are available in a 2 DVD set, with 6 episodes on one and 3 on the other. Some of them have a commentary track by The Tick creator Ben Edlund but the one I listened to wasn't very interesting. He was mostly talking about the limitations of the budget, what he was trying to do with the characters, and other such obvious issues. Of the nine episodes, the best was The Tick vs. Justice, and if the rest of them had been that good the series might have stood a better chance.
(In DVD order, which is different from the televised order)
The pilot episode introduces the main cast and pits them against The Red Scare (taken from the comic in name only), a large red robot built in 1979 to assassinate President Jimmy Carter. A group of communists somehow got a hold of it after the collapse of the Soviet Union and planned to unleash it on The City as part of a crime wave. Things take an unexpected turn when The Tick, bored with defending a bus station in the middle of nowhere, comes to The City where there's more crime to fight. Arthur meanwhile quits his job to become a superhero, the two meet Captain Liberty and Batmanuel, and The Tick and Arthur save former president Jimmy Carter from The Red Scare while recycling jokes from the cartoon show. Arthur then forges a friendship with The Tick, who moves into his apartment because he has nowhere else to go.
Trivia: Arthur flies for the first of only two times in the series in the episode. Batmanuel and Captain Liberty's costumes are noticeably different from the rest of the series. Since most of the clips shown in the opening credits are from the Pilot, this explains why their costumes don't match what we see in the series.
The Terror (very good)
Set a year after the Pilot episode, Arthur, Captain Liberty, and Batmanuel hold a party on the rooftops to celebrate The Tick and Arthur's one-year anniversary as a superhero duo. This is just a framing device to tell the story of their second adventure. Captain Liberty, jealous of The Tick's success against The Red Scare, looks for a supervillain for him to fight who can knock him down a few notches. Batmanuel initially enjoys the joke, but when she decides on The Terror (Armin Shimerman) suddenly he doesn't think it's so funny anymore. The Terror has been fighting against truth and justice for decades and has sent more than one highly experienced and successful superhero to his DOOM. Fortunately for our heroes, The Terror is 112 years old and quite a bit past his prime.
Trivia: Captain Liberty's torch/PDA puts The Terror's birthday at 1905, and another character explicitly states that the episode takes place in 2001, making The Terror only 96 years old, but the Terror admits he's 112 (and therefore born in 1889). Oddly, since the story is told in a year-old flashback, this 2001 airdate episode is set in 2002.
Arthur, Interrupted (good)
In a ham-fisted parody of the issues gays and lesbians face "coming out" to their families, Arthur tells his mother and sister that he has decided to become a superhero. His mother deals with it through straight denial and his sister becomes angry and upset, eventually coming to the point where they have Arthur taken to an asylum where superheroes are deprogrammed. Dave Foley plays the analyst who tries to make Arthur understand that he isn't special, he's just like everyone else and is simply having delusions of grandeur in rebellion against a mundane life that he should really be embracing as his own. When his family has second thoughts about what they've done, The Tick, Captain Liberty, and Batmanuel storm the asylum to free Arthur and uncover the analyst's suppressed desire to be a superhero himself.
The License (poor)
In a city full of vigilante heroes, someone has to make sure they're following the rules and hold them accountable for their actions. In The City this is done through a licensing system, but The Tick doesn't have a superhero license. Arthur brings him to the DMV to answer a few simple questions and get his license, but the big blue lug doesn't know his real name, date of birth, or social security number. This is where I think the show really dropped the ball on The Tick. In the comic and the cartoon, nobody knew who he was and came to accept he was simply The Tick, end of story. In the live-action show they tried too hard to bring him into the real world, where The Tick simply doesn't belong. There's also a side plot involving Captain Liberty trying to date a normal man without letting him know she's a superhero. Captain Liberty spends most of the episode out of costume, a state of dress extremely rare for every character except Arthur.
Arthur Needs Space (poor)
Arthur bumps into a girl (Missi Pyle) he knew in high school. She was pretty and popular while Arthur was... well, not. Although she wouldn't give him the time of day back then, now she's suddenly talking to him and being quite forward in pursuing a relationship. Batmanuel is convinced she is only talking to him because she thinks his superhero suit is sexy ("You think she's only talking to me because of the suit?" "I am only talking to you because of the suit."), an idea Arthur is decidedly uncomfortable with. Unfortunately his attempts to discover whether or not this is true are hindered by The Tick, who doesn't seem to understand that superhero teams don't quite do everything together. I felt this was another poor episode due to The Tick being forced to face the real world again. There's also a side plot involving nude pictures of Captain Liberty being published in an adult magazine.
Trivia: It is revealed in this episode that The Tick can't recognize Arthur, or indeed any superhero, without his costume on.
Finally, we see another superhero who isn't just a guy hanging around in the background wearing a costume, and Arthur flies for the second and last time in the series. Fiery Blaze (Ron Perlman) and Friendly Fire are another superhero / sidekick team who bump into The Tick and Arthur while on patrol. It's a bit unclear if Fiery Blaze actually has any superpowers or not, the pyrotechnics that accompany his appearance could just be a special effect he uses, like Darkwing Duck's smoke clouds. Either way, the four of them meet for lunch the next day, where it becomes clear that Fiery Blaze horribly abuses his sidekick and takes him for granted. Arthur begins to get worried as The Tick seems to look up to him and is starting to emulate his arrogant attitude toward sidekicks. Friendly Fire quits his partnership with Fiery Blaze and brings Arthur to meet some other disgruntled sidekicks (including a mutant fish-man), and Arthur realizes that the Tick isn't really like that, Fiery Blaze is just being a bad influence. The two make up, and Fiery Blaze shows up to apologize to Friendly Fire for how he treated him and admits he's lost without his partner. There's also a side-plot involving Captain Liberty attempting to buy a pet dog, but the pet shop owner recognizes the signs of a lonely woman looking for companionship and refuses to sell her one.
Trivia: Friendly Fire's brightly colored, somewhat homoerotic costume is a parody of Robin, the boy Wonder.
The Funeral (good)
The Immortal, the world's most famous superhero, fails to live up to his name when he dies in bed with Captain Liberty. Arthur has to explain death to The Tick while Batmanuel impersonates The Immortal at a book signing he was supposed to be at so Captain Liberty can cover up his death for a few hours to clear herself of blame. Meanwhile The Tick and Arthur try to sneak The Immortal back into his hotel room so he can be found dead there instead of Captain Liberty's studio apartment. The string of adventures and near-misses with the police eventually convinces Arthur that he can't spend his whole life running scared from every little danger, especially if he's going to be a superhero. The story is framed inside The Immortal's funeral, with The Tick giving a stirring, but rambling and mostly nonsensical eulogy. It turns out The Tick wasn't scheduled to speak at the funeral, but a high-ranking military official decides not to interrupt him because he's "starting to like the cut of his gibberish."
The Tick vs. Justice (very good)
The title was chosen as a homage to The Tick's cartoon show, which unerringly followed the format of "The Tick vs. _____". At last, an actual Supervillain! Destroyo, sort of a combination Dr. Doom and Hannibal Lecter, runs into (literally) The Tick, Arthur, and Batmanuel in a parking garage. In the ensuing (offscreen) fight, the three discover weapons and bombs in Destroyo's trunk, and bring him to the police. What seems to be a classic case of "superhero beats up supervillain, supervillain goes to jail" turns into a fiasco during Destroyo's trial though. The Tick admits he didn't have a warrant to search Destroyo's car and the evidence is dismissed. The Tick can't understand the complexities of the legal proceedings and is sent to jail for contempt of court, leaving Arthur vulnerable to Destroyo's henchmen (with only the "protection" of Batmanuel). Meanwhile Captain Liberty gets a psychological once-over from Destroyo while guarding his jail cell in a parody of Silence of the Lambs, but her needy personality and self-centered persecution complex eventually prove too much for his nerves ("You're not needy! You're wanty!")
Trivia: Absolutely nothing about this trial bears any resemblance to actual legal proceedings. But that's okay, because this is by far the funniest episode of the series. From The Tick's conversations with his cellmate, who is quite possibly as insane as he is, to Destroyo's supervillain bantering and sound effects, the jokes fly fast and effectively from start to finish. Best of all, The Tick is free to live in his own little world, as it should be, while the real world goes about its business around him.
The Big Leagues (good)
In another ham-fisted parody of real-life issues, The Tick and Arthur are invited to join an exclusive club for superheroes. Things start to go downhill though when it becomes obvious that this club has an unwritten policy against membership by certain kinds of people, namely women and minorities. Arthur grapples with his conscience, on one hand he's flattered to be accepted but on the other hand he's uncomfortable with the club's unscrupulous policies. The Tick also isn't happy with the club's rule not to get involved in petty, everyday crimefighting. Meanwhile Captain Liberty organizes a class-action lawsuit against the League of Superheroes for discrimination, but their lawyer turns out to be the secret identity of the League's president.