Critic's Notebook: The Joyful Absurdity of 'The Tick' and 'What We Do in the Shadows'

The Tick - Publicity- H 2017
Courtesy of Jessica Miglio/Amazon

Amazon's comedy series The Tick abounds in moments of unfettered, and maybe even unearned, joy. It's a laugh just to look at The Tick (Peter Serafinowicz), with his enormous blue costume and moving antennae. Those moments underline how the series, which just kicked off its second season, doesn't have to be laugh-out-loud funny all the time to be rewarding.

This same sense of delightful ridiculousness is on offer in FX's What We Do in the Shadows, which recently started its first season. The vampire comedy (based on the 2014 movie of the same name by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi), conjures oodles of hilarity in ways that don't rely on written jokes or elaborate visual bits. Like when one of the central vampires, Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), speaks with an accent so high-concept in its execution that it's sure to make you smile, and possibly even laugh out loud. Or when Nandor and his two roommates, Laszlo (Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), hiss at one another when annoyed.

These two gems' abundance of absurdity is something to celebrate. Getting a good laugh for the sake of your mental health is something I support — as I wrote about last week in reference to Veep and our corrosive political climate.

Of course, Veep is an entirely different kind of animal. Its humor is incredibly fast-paced and vicious, a cocktail of searing truisms that underscore how screwed up the world is — which is also welcome comic relief. But Veep is an elite-level series, its brilliance quite rare.

The Tick, whose first season was split in two — a necessity, perhaps, but one that hurt its momentum and ability to leave a mark in this Peak TV world — is essentially a brand-new entry for most viewers. And What We Do in the Shadows is a freshman series, so comparing either to Veep would be unfair on a number of levels. But what both these series do so perfectly is the aforementioned delivery of easy joy — which is not easy to achieve.

Once those shows appeal to you on that very simple level, they then come in for the comedy kill with their absurdist slants. And right now, absurdism feels fantastic.

The story of The Tick isn't hard to catch up with. The title character's relentless optimism and belief in nebbish Arthur (Griffin Newman), the shy accountant who now wears a superhero Moth costume, has made them a nice little duo in The City (most references in The Tick are meant to be a sendup of the superhero genre) and with last year's main villain, The Terror, dispatched, season two shifts into the notion that a lot more evildoers will be attracted to the metropolis to do bad things. The Tick and Arthur are now going to battle a rotating cast of what creator Ben Edlund specializes in — ridiculous bad guys. First up is Lobstercules, which basically tells you all you need to know. The Tick is a series that has a talking boat called Dangerboat, so if you're new to this thing, get ready for, well, absurdity.

But that's the attraction. Absurdity pokes you when you're being too serious. Absurdity is one of the most audacious kinds of comedy because it dares to be goofy. You don't earn a lot of critical cachet with goofy, as history tells us, unless of course you do it extremely well. Both The Tick and What We Do in the Shadows are impressively adept at this style of humor. What We Do in the Shadows has a more cynical edge and a few more sharp right angles in its jokes, which makes it more suitable for people who struggle with the concept of a man dressed up as a big blue tick. 

Not only is the show sending up the tropes of vampire movies and the wider horror genre, but it's also milking the fact that it knows exactly how silly it is. It's a show about an Office-like documentary crew following around some lazy, grumpy, clueless vampires on Staten Island. If you read that sentence and it doesn't spark a smile, then you're probably ill-equipped for the ridiculous elements within. A character named Colin (Mark Proksch) works in an office and bores his co-workers with the longest and most pointless stories imaginable — and that's his power. He's an energy vampire. He lingers around your desk, draining your will to live. That joke works every time they use it.

The more overtly ridiculous Tick requires the viewer to be all-in with the superhero-sendup conceit. Beyond his strength, the central character's real superpower is that he's a glass-is-so-full-it's-spilling type — it doesn't hurt that he has no memory and is kind of clueless. His relentless glee at stopping bad guys is the running joke of the series. One of his friends is Overkill, so named because he brings 90 times what's needed to do the job, in the process making everyone annoyed that he doesn't dial it back. If you can't see the humor in Overkill, this might not be your show.

But I'm guessing that The Tick, whose episodes fly by with easy-to-digest joy and are chock-full of small pleasures, and What We Do in the Shadows, with its surprising and funny creativity, are shows that most people will love, and which most people — whether they know it yet or not — probably need in their troubled, anxious lives.

So, dive in, if you haven't already. And let's all find our camaraderie in absurdity.