Sunday, October 04, 2020

Swamp Thing, Now on the CW

The battle of the comic book bayou beasts was really no contest. Marvel had Man-Thing, who is still best remembered as an associate of Howard the Duck. DC published The Swamp Thing, which was written for several years by a young Alan Moore and inspired Wes Craven’s cult-favorite film. A campy sequel and an early 1990s cable series eventually followed. Given DC’s current success with episodic television, it made sense for them to take another whack at the character for their streaming service, but they announced the first season would also be the last, shortly after its premiere. Yet, somewhat appropriately, Xi’s Covid epidemic prompted an opportunity for the mucky brooder to rise again, when the CW picked up the network broadcast rights to season one of Gary Dauberman & Mark Verheiden’s Swamp Thing, which premieres on free TV this Wednesday.

CDC field investigator Dr. Abby Arcane has returned to her hometown of Marais, LA, where some strange viral outbreak has rattled the community (can we relate?). Her teenaged years there were difficult, for tragic reasons we will soon discover, so she is less than thrilled to be back. However, the nature of the pestilence is so severe, she accepts the inevitable awkwardness. Consulting with Alec Holland, a talented but somewhat disreputable scientist hired by local big-wig Avery Sunderland, proves illuminating. He was hired to track the accelerated growth effects of a “mutagen” Sunderland’s business is developing, but he discovered illegal mega-dumpings of the serum have been systematically released into the swamp.

There seems to be a connection between the mutagen and the virus, but the nature of the latter remains unclear. Sadly, Holland winds up dead for his efforts, but not dead enough. Somehow, the mutagen transformed him into a big hulking plant creature—or something like that. His cellular structure is radically altered but he still has his memories and continues to carry a torch for Arcane, who in turn yearns to cure the man she was developing feelings for.

This review is based on the episodes that are available on DVD and VOD, which will be slightly edited for length and content when they air on the CW. That means they will be a bit shorter and slightly less fun, because one of the best aspects of this
Swamp Thing are the macabre mutant-plant effects and the wild body horror they often produce.

Regardless, the way the latest
Swamp Thing series embraces the horror elements of the franchise is quite effective (logically so, given James Wan’s executive producer imprimatur). The effects really do work and the Southern Gothic elements compliment the mad science quite nicely (from a fan’s perspective). Yet, one of the biggest discoveries is how cool the relatively minor DC Universe super-hero The Blue Devil turns out to be, when given an unexpected supporting role. We’d rather see a spin-off series for him, rather than a second season for Swampy.

Be that as it may, Dauberman & Verheiden’s
Swamp Thing earns a lot of good will for showcasing some talented 80’s and 90’s-era character thesps, including 90210’s Ian Ziering, who constantly gives the show a jolt of energy as Daniel Cassidy, who is and will become the Blue Devil. Likewise, it is always entertaining to see Will Patton do what he does best as the villainous Sunderland. Virginia Madsen constantly forces viewers to re-evaluate their assumptions regarding Maria Sunderland, the evil big-shot’s profoundly grieving wife. Yet, it is Jennifer Beals who constantly surprises as the cynical and decidedly unpredictable Sheriff Lucilia Cable.

Crystal Reed manages to project all of Arcane’s guilt-ridden angst without taxing viewer patience, which really is quite an accomplishment. She also forges some genuinely credible chemistry with Andy Bean as the flesh-and-blood Holland and Derek Mears as his giant fungal analog.

For true-green fans, Mears has big, muddy shoes to fill, since the late Dick Durock portrayed the monstrous super-hero in both films and the previous TV series, but he really gives the show tortured soul, very much in the Universal monster tradition. However, there are times when Kevin Durand is maybe a little too campy as the arrogant and untrustworthy scientist, Dr. Jason Woodrue. In contrast, Macon Blair chews the scenery with just the right level of hamminess as the Phantom Stranger.

Reportedly, DC Universe cut their order from thirteen episodes to ten after production commences, so it only stands to reason that plenty of loose ends remain unresolved. Fans should know Anton Arcane, Louis Jordan’s character in the Craven film does not appear in the first and presumably only season, but Adrienne Barbeau chops poor Abby Arcane off at the knees in a special appearance as the CDC’s assistant director. The series gets that kind of fan service right and also offers up a lot of creepy ambiance and macabre imagery. Some of the conspiratorial themes are rather shopworn and conventional, but the supernatural and super-hero elements blend quite smoothly. Recommended as a horror show that carves out its own hybrid-space,
Swamp Thing starts its broadcast TV run this Tuesday (10/6), on the CW.