Because the DC Universe streaming platform debuted in a world that was already verging on comic adaptation oversaturation, it has been interesting to see how the service’s first few shows have attempted to carve out a distinctive place for themselves.
With Titans, it was, “Look at us! We’re too dark and EDGY for broadcast!” In a vaguely obnoxious way.
With Doom Patrol, it was, “Look at us! We’re too twisty and quirky for broadcast!” In a promising way.
With Swamp Thing, premiering Friday on DC Universe, it might be, “We like to say ‘fuck’ and we want to go extreme with our vine-y tentacle porn!” To that I say, “Fair enough.”
DC Universe’s decision to trim episodes from the initial Swamp Thing order sent up the aroma that the series might be noxious. Based on the first two episodes sent to critics, though, it’s a decent enough origin story carried by a surprisingly good ensemble cast and the assertive direction of Len Wiseman. Other than some swearing and a little extra intensity, Swamp Thing could have aired on The CW, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Adapted by Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman from the DC property by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing stars Crystal Reed as Abby Arcane, introduced in this incarnation as a dogged CDC investigator. Fresh off containing a hemorrhagic fever outbreak in the Congo, Abby and CDC partner Harlan (Leonardo Nam, wasted thus far) are summoned to look into a perplexing swamp-borne illness spreading through the town of Marais, Louisiana. This hits close to home for Abby because, well, Marais was her home. She left 14 years earlier after a tragedy that claimed the life of her best friend and hasn’t returned. As she’s poking around, Abby encounters Alec Holland (Andy Bean), a researcher working for Avery Sunderland (Will Patton), a local businessman and father of Abby’s late friend. Attempting to save lives and figure out what’s happening in the swamp doesn’t keep Abby from reuniting with her bartender/journalist chum Liz (Maria Sten), a cop who had a crush on Abby in high school (Henderson Wade’s Matt Cable, son of the local sheriff played by Jennifer Beals) and more.
My initial instinct upon seeing that the pilot for Swamp Thing runs a full hour was to wince. Just because you have no limitations doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be smart enough to put limitations on yourself. However, it turns out that the length of the Swamp Thing pilot isn’t ill-considered. It’s only a limited spoiler to say that Holland is going to eventually become the character known as Swamp Thing and that the pilot takes its sweet time getting to a destination that, on a purely plot-driven level, could have been dispatched within 15 minutes. If you do that, you get to the action and the effects and the creature played by Derek Mears faster, but you miss out on building the sympathy for the character that’s essential to the series. Though I may be skeptical that the bond that builds between Alec and Abby in what is effectively only one day makes practical sense, their relationship has to be the foundation for the entire series and Reed and Holland mostly make it work. Without that, there’s no series.
It’s notable how much of the first two episodes, in fact, is spent on character work, which you can only get away with if you have a cast this good. Patton displays the same ability to mix avuncular and menacing that he has brought to countless films and even in a story that is basically an environmental cautionary tale, he keeps Sunderland from being a stock evil industrialist. A scene with Patton and Reed in the second episode is more suspenseful than the show’s more effective-driven sequences, and Reed thrives here and in scenes with Virginia Madsen as Avery’s troubled wife, who blames Abby for her daughter’s death. Throw in Beals, Kevin Durand — cast against type as a nerdy biologist — and Ian Ziering, amusing as the B-movie star who is Marais’ most famous resident, and there are enough decent veteran performances on Swamp Thing to offset the occasionally hilarious and inconsistent Louisiana accents being tossed around.
Wiseman keeps the story moving at a fast enough clip that it never gets bogged down — pun intended — in the exposition that involves a lot of talk about mutagens, accelerants and other science silliness that boils down to, “Something is in the water that’s making the Spanish moss and vines and other leafy flora go nutty.” It’s more creepy than truly scary, but there’s a bravura autopsy scene that goes haywire in ways that are pretty clearly meant to evoke a CG-enhanced (and therefore less visceral) take on Rob Bottin’s work in John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s properly gross, a little disturbing and probably pushed to a degree broadcast TV would never allow. With a major assist from composer Brian Tyler, Wiseman constructs some moody, nervous moments in the eponymous swamp, overcoming a set design that never feels like anything other than a swimming pool in a North Carolina soundstage.
As for the creature design? I can’t say for sure. Through two episodes, Swamp Thing is never seen in even partial light, nor do we ever see the character’s full body. In the short run, the early episodic decision to emphasize the man inside Swamp Thing over Swamp Thing himself is paying off. What the show actually does with its title character, whether it’s convincing and whether he’s been provided with enough adversaries to carry the show for very long remains to be seen. That I’m more curious about these questions after watching two episodes, rather than less curious, speaks to a better-than-expected introduction to this world.
Cast: Crystal Reed, Andy Bean, Derek Mears, Will Patton, Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Beals, Kevin Durand, Maria Sten, Henderson Wade, Jeryl Prescott, Ian Ziering, Leonardo Nam
Creators: Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman, from the DC property by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
Director: Len Wiseman (first two episodes)
Premieres: Friday (DC Universe)