I don’t think it’s any kind of great controversy to say that Swamp Thing is one of the most consistently great titles in DC’s library. The original Lein Wein/Bernie Wrightson comics are gorgeously rendered monster smashes, and the Alan Moore/Stephen Bissette/John Totlebein/Rick Veitch era is arguably the greatest thing to ever have a DC logo plastered on it. And while those comics are the high-water mark, there’s been plenty of great talent to grace its pages in the years that followed: Veitch’s truncated run as writer/artist, Nancy Collins/Tom Mandrake/Tom Yeates, Grant Morrison/Mark Millar/Phil Hester, Brian K. Vaughan/Roger Petersen/Giuseppe Camuncoli, Scott Snyder/Yanick Paquette, Charles Soule/Kano/David Lapham. While my feelings on each vary, there’s always a baseline level of enjoyment for the book that’s inescapable. It’s a bit like DC’s version of Daredevil in that way: never quite a headliner, but always a canvas by which fascinating creators can flex their muscles.
And thus, the announcement that Swamp Thing would follow Doom Patrol on the DC Universe streaming service came as a source of great joy for this critic. The current DC Universe output has been quite strong, with Titans producing largely enjoyable results, and Doom Patrol being arguably the best superhero TV series to date. Getting horror maestro (and Aquaman director) James Wan on board to help shepherd the project into being was just the cherry on top. An A-grade horror guy working on Swamp Thing! We’ve come a long way since the much-missed Dick Durock and Wes Craven.
The Beat received the opportunity to watch the first episode this week, and I’m loathe to say, it falls short of the heightened expectations that the respective pedigree demands. Honestly, in some ways it even falls short of the low bar set by some of its brethren on the CW. Let me see if I can unpack that thought a bit…
Here are the facts of the case: this initial episode of Swamp Thing, directed by Underworld mastermind Len Wiseman and written by Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman, gets off to a rather intriguing start: with a trio of henchmen sifting through the dark corners of an eerie swamp attempting to abscond with materials of an unknown nature. As suddenly terror strikes from within the trees, they receive their comeuppance. It’s a bit like one of the old Universal horror movies, with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man coming immediately to mind. It’s a stylish (and gruesome) start to an hour of television that only occasionally sputters back to life when it’s time to ratchet the scares back up.
Much of the episode’s duration in spent in the company of Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), a CDC intelligence specialist – yes, it’s a real thing, as she insists hilariously – who is brought back to her hometown of Marais, Lousiana due to an outbreak of an unknown virus that is quickly beginning to spread after a young girl is basically patient zero. After she and her partner Harlan Edwards (Leonardo Nam) begin their investigation at the local hospital and discover mysterious flora at the comatose victim’s bedside, Arcane crosses paths with Dr. Alec Holland (Andy Bean), a loose cannon researcher under the employ of Avery Sunderland (Will Patton), the local magnate who is celebrated in the community, but clearly has his own nefarious goals where Alec’s work is concerned and the swamp itself.
And of course, Abby has her own dark past with Sunderland and his wife Maria (Virginia Madsen), which is a mysterious hanging thread involving their deceased daughter and the role Abby played in her passing. The episode also introduces a couple of hometown pals for Abby in Liz Tremayne (Maria Sten) and Matt Cable (Henderson Wade), a local journalist and cop respectively. They don’t get a lot to do, but they add some additional connection for Abby to the area, who is firmly the centerpiece of this installment as she and Alec delve deeper into the mystery of this illness and how it ties into a growth accelerant that the latter has uncovered.
Of course, what you’ll note is what I have failed to mention: any actual appearance by Swamp Thing (Derek Mears), which is unfortunately not something that takes up much real estate in this first hour. It’s an origin story though, so it’s to be expected that we wouldn’t get our favorite mosshead right away. More pressingly is the dull pacing that’s impossible to ignore, and if I’ve learned anything from working with Heidi, it’s marking how many times I’ve almost fallen asleep watching something. I watched this screener twice over the past 24 hours, and the first time I viewed it, I nearly passed out three times. The second time I put it on, I had to immediately take a nap. It’s a bizarre mixture of dull performances mixed with long discussions of nothing of interest that serves as a sedative. Verheiden and Dauberman’s attempts at humor fall flatter than a pancake (Columbo references?) and the drama itself is so wrapped up in its mystery that nothing is explained in a satisfying enough manner to grab a viewer. Yet every moment is also taken up with the kind of telling instead of showing that serves to be the death of so many of these superhero shows right from the outset. Every character tells you exactly what is on their mind, but not enough for you to really care about what they’re saying. It’s bizarre.
Everyone in front of the camera gets very little of quality to work with, clearly, but the leads themselves are no great shakes either. While Reed can impressively produce tears on command, her ability to command the screen is fairly lightweight at this point, and Bean is a particularly benign presence. That he’s shuttled off before the close of things is a small mercy, and the brief closeup of Mears’ eyes that we get is actually the closest thing to real humanity that the episode provides. The rest of the cast is just hiding behind accents at this point. But I’m looking forward to a series that centers on Mears and gives Reed someone more compelling to play off of. Unfortunately if this first episode is any indication, what I have in my head is unlikely to come to pass.
I will say, I have seen the second episode, and it’s a marginal improvement in that there’s more of the creature himself (thank goodness!) and a couple of intriguing cast additions (including one I’m REALLY hopeful for), but so far it’s neither up to the excellence of Doom Patrol nor is it the dumb fun of the CW canon. Fingers crossed that the series will grow in power like Swampy himself. Right now it’s just a shrub.