Heroes and Villains

I've come to accept that my personal likes and dislikes bear not the slightest resemblance to everyone else's, or at least to whatever passes for the fast-receding "popular taste" that networks are clutching at these days. I couldn't foresee a future for That '70s Show, now in its third season, and I figured Max Bickford, recently dumbed down in the quest for higher ratings, was barely smart enough.

So if I tell you that I have no clue what Fox was thinking when they let The Tick on the air, will that ensure its survival? It would be nice to think so. The first episode was plenty quirky, introducing us to the big guy (Patrick Warburton) atop a desolate bus station, guarding unwary travelers from its balky coffee machine and narrating his own exploits like the valedictorian at the Adam West School for Dramatic Arts. Packed off to "The City," the Tick finds his calling among heroes like the cleavage-baring Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey), and suave, cowardly Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell), who sets up dates on his cell phone rather than fighting crime. "From this time forward," the Tick vows, "I will spread my buttery justice over every nook and cranny!"

An enthusiastic dim bulb whose brutalist jaw is a wonderful special effect, Warburton's Tick cheerfully crushes the buildings he leaps onto, ripping off doors when he enters rooms. Joining him is sidekick Arthur (David Burke), a Rick Moranis-model sad sack who quit his accounting job to become some sort of moth-man with bunny ears. To further the dry comic-book parody, the Tick fights evil, too, head-butting and crushing villain du jour the Red Scare, a clanky LED-era Soviet contraption designed to murder then-President Jimmy Carter.

The first episode turned out to be the only measure of normality the show would offer. The next few weeks fairly screamed out for cancellation--as if executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld and his collaborators figured, What the hell, let's thumb our noses at the world as we speed toward reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel. Thus we get stories without villains or anything even faintly resembling a standard plot line. In the second episode, a theme-and-variations on the subject of relationships, Captain Liberty calls up former boyfriend Batmanuel for reassurance that she's not a loser, despite spending Friday night at home alone with a copy of Sleepless in Seattle. Batmanuel, turning down the porno he's watching only slightly, wants phone sex instead. Later the guy at the pet store won't sell the Captain a puppy for companionship (even though she strides in there in costume!) because her attitude is all wrong. In the same episode, Arthur and the Tick discover the class divide in hero world--Arthur meets a clump of sidekicks, all of them beaten down and ignored--in scenes that rest half a step away from a Lifetime-network abused-wife melodrama.

In the third episode, the Captain kills graying superguy the Immortal, in town for his book tour, during enthusiastic sex--the big guy's heat vision gets going when he's aroused, leaving burn marks on the ceiling. "I'm a better hero," sneers Batmanuel. "I slept with you lots of times and never died." Our protagonists then spend the episode trying to dispose of the rapidly stiffening corpse, and to explain death to the Tick, who seems not to grasp its reach into the order of all things. ("Even potatoes?" he asks.)

After screening this spectacle in consecutive installments, I'm not sure who should be watching The Tick. The show's black comedy with a mean edge contemplates what's left when even our fantasy lives offer up nothing better than half-competent heroes who bicker and snipe like the Seinfeld gang in that jail cell. (Heck, the gang here--three guys and their gal pal--even hangs out at a diner in their downtime.) After that first episode, The Tick neither intends to be nor is particularly funny in the absurdist tradition that any viewer of the animated series will fondly recall. (I personally have a soft spot for Dinosaur Neil, the gentle paleontologist who turned into a tyrannosaurus.) Instead, this is almost Beckettian comedy, bleak with promises broken and hopes unrealized.

Fifteen years ago Frank Miller overturned the atrophied superhero genre to reveal its ugly underside. His Dark Knight Returns posited Batman as an aging fascist thirsting for one more chance to deal out yet more extralegal retribution in a city where rampant violation has torn civil society to shreds. And in the process, Miller brought on a wave of revisionism in which seemingly every hero got made over into a conflicted, vigilante outcast. (Spookily, the graphic novel also depicts a plot to blow up Gotham's equivalent of the World Trade Center, as well as a plane ramming a skyscraper.)

If Miller's was a fevered Reagan nightmare, the Tick is a hero fit for our era--clueless, well-meaning, and more than a little past the bounds of rational comprehension (which, come to think of it, is a charitable vision of Reagan). He wreaks havoc on his surroundings simply because the big lug doesn't know any better. "Superheroes are just a bunch of sexually frustrated kindergartners," Arthur moans. "No offense intended." "None comprehended," the Tick sunnily replies.

I can't imagine that this show will be around very long--nor, for that matter, even if it were, that many of us could bear to look into its dopey countenance and see ourselves staring back.