Ticked Off

The Tick doesn’t live up to its noble heritage.

The Tick 

I spent many a Saturday morning of the middle 1990s badly hungover, watching cartoons on television. Because of this, I fell in love—as I struggled to swallow dry toast—with an animated program called The Tick.

This show was pure joy. It starred, of course, the Tick—a blue-suited, verbose yet dimwitted superhero. His sidekick Arthur was an accountant who’d bought, on a whim, a flying moth suit. Together, they teamed with crime-fighting pals like Die Fledermaus (a guy in a bat suit—Fledermaus means “bat” in German) and Bi-Polar Bear (“This looks like a job for Bi-Polar Bear! But I just can’t get out of bed this month …”). They fought villains such as Chairface (who had a small chair where his head should be), or the Breadmaster (an evil baker) and his sidekick Buttery Pat (who was made of butter). The Tick’s battle cry, for no discernible reason, was “Spooooooooooon!” and Arthur’s battle cry was “Not in the face! Not in the face!” Trust me, this show was comedic genius, even when I wasn’t hungover. But it got canned in 1997, after three seasons. Now, as with all cartoon cult hits, The Tick has been live-actionized: A Fox sitcom called The Tick debuts Nov. 8.

Something always gets lost in this sort of translation. The beauty of the Tick cartoon, as with the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show, lay in its narrow focus on utter nonsense: absurd characters, pointless puns, abandonment of meaning and continuity. Somehow, using actors seems to deaden the fun of this stuff. Remember when they live-actioned Bullwinkle? The Tick isn’t nearly that bad, thank goodness, but it also fails to capture the anti-logic of cartoons.

The new Tick is written mostly by folks behind the old show (one writer worked on Space Ghost Coast to Coast—another brilliant, Dadaist, superhero cartoon). But either these guys have lost a step, or they can’t quite tailor their humor to live action. For instance, the featured villain in the Tick pilot is the Red Scare, a Soviet-era robot programmed to kill Jimmy Carter. Fine, but that’s not near as funny as a man with a chair for a head. Robots make boring villains (no twisted motives or background—they’re just programmed to be evil), and this robot doesn’t even talk. Sadly, legal issues prevent the new Tick from including the cartoon’s villains or the Tick’s talking pet capybara, Speak. The Tick doesn’t even say “Spooooon!” anymore—sacrilege. And the Tick’s grandiose soliloquys—a highlight of the cartoon (“I soar! I am the eagle king of all I survey! I am become Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds!”)—are back, but not as sharp. Patrick Warburton (Putty from Seinfeld) should be perfectly cast as the Tick (huge, cheerfully oblivious), yet his monologues fall flat.

Meanwhile, pilot-director Barry Sonnenfeld again overuses his favorite shot: a wide-angle close-up on a face, perfectly centered within the frame. I liked this shot in Raising Arizona, which he photographed. I liked it in Get Shorty and Men in Black, which he directed. But by Wild, Wild West, I’d had quite enough. Time to find a new signature, dude. Especially on a small screen, this and other stock Sonnenfeldian compositions are way too claustrophobic. The show also opts for spare, dimly lighted sets, and no extras: Glengarry, Glen Tick.

In the end, I’m rooting for The Tick, and it may well improve. More likely, it’ll be canceled before its talented writers find their stride. Which is too bad—some things go right in the pilot. The Tick’s antennae are funny when they move (they’re radio-operated during filming). And new superhero Batmanuel, a leather-winged Latin lover, could be a winner. Most promising of all, the second episode may include a villain named Apocalypse Cow, who has weaponized teats.