Two years ago, a new version of The Tick premiered during Amazon’s Pilot Season promotion with a first episode that felt queasy, paranoid, and claustrophobic. It definitely wasn’t The Tick of years past.
But, for the most part, any worries about Ben Edlund’s big, loveable crimefighter melted away as that first season spooled out in 2017 and 2018. And with a freshly debuted second season, The Tick of 2019 shines brighter than ever.
The biggest change about the newest version of The Tick is that—when compared to the 1980s comics, 1990s cartoon, and early-aughts network series—it happens in a world that’s a lot more like real life, an iteration of the City without superheroes until the Tick shows up out of nowhere.
The first season focused on main character Arthur Everest’s journey from paranoia and distrust to an eventual acceptance that he might be a hero. Griffin Newman, who plays Arthur, says getting picked up for another season gave him a different sort of anxiety.
“Whatever Arthur is going through as a character on the show tends to link up pretty directly with whatever I’m going through as an actor,” Newman told io9 during a recent phone conversation. “No one had ever let me play this big of a character before.
Auditioning for the pilot certainly felt like that kind of thing of trying to prove to everyone that I wasn’t crazy, because I was no one’s idea of a leading man or a superhero. I tend to be a fear-triggered performer; I feel like anxiety is what usually drives me to do my best work. And, since I’ve done a season of the show and it was received pretty well, I worried about having a driving force that gives me that energy anymore.”
Tick and Arthur wind up working inside of super-spy organisation A.E.G.I.S. this season, which leads to a revelation of a different kind of super-ability. “What really thwarts Arthur and Tick — mainly Tick — what makes them stumble, is paperwork,” actor Peter Serafinowicz, who plays the title character, said.
“And they just have to do endless swarms. There’s this huge bureaucracy, like, it just drives Tick crazy. And it drives Ben Edlund crazy. And it drives me crazy, as well.”
However, as a former accountant, Arthur’s great at filling out forms. “People have written a lot of superhero fiction about laws and bills getting passed, you know, and we had our own amendment in the show,” Newman elaborated. “But the thing you never think about is all the pencil-pushing.
Now that we’re part of this big SHIELD-type agency, if you want to arrest a criminal, you have to file an arrest report. But the report has to be filed by the person who did the capturing, you know? So, even though Arthur’s the one who’s good at paperwork, when it’s Tick who threw the punch, he has to file the forms.”
“That kind of stuff is what’s great about this show,” Newman said. “There’s always something fertile to be found by just dragging these things down to the most boring, mundane aspects of humanity that we’re all dealing with on a day-to-day level.”
When A.E.G.I.S. reopens in The City, it means that more heroes start showing up, resulting in a shift in tone that’s closer to the over-the-top stylings of American superhero comics’ Silver Age. That tonal shift is happening just as films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Captain Marvel, and Shazam win hearts with more hopeful superheroes. That’s only partly a coincidence, says Tick creator Ben Edlund.
“I think we’re watching a superhero evolution that we’ve seen in other forms,” Edlund said during a phone interview this week. “There was a period where it was spreading out and it was taking itself extremely seriously and sort of showing outward signs of a kind of maturity.
With the movies, that cycle is sort of doubling back on itself. That goes for a while and is sort of predictive in a way. It was an indicator of where the zeitgeist was and pointed to where we are now, which is in a very gritty, dark, and cynical place.”
He continued, “We’re battling cynicism full-on right now and it makes sense to me that cynicism is getting difficult to digest because we’ve had so much of it. And now some joy is coming back and we have the advantage of a story clustering around the Tick, who is just a natural pilot light of optimism.”
Everyone involved with The Tick loves this focus on optimism, even if it happens outside of their show. “For all of like Zack Snyder’s chest-puffing about, like, Superman committing tax fraud, Shazam deals with heavy stuff,” Newman said.
“That scene with Billy and his mother is one of the darkest things I have seen in any superhero movie, but it doesn’t feel the need to treat it with a sort of grimness. [The filmmakers] trusted that it can coexist in a world with, with real goofiness.”
Serafinowicz says the steadfastness of the Tick’s open-hearted nature continues to appeal to him immensely.
“Right from the pilot, the thing I loved about the story the most was the story of Tick’s utter yearning and longing for Arthur,” Serafinowicz said. The longing that Tick felt for Arthur pulled him into an existence that he was ill-equipped for but, like his nebbishy little buddy, the naive hero evolved. “Some folks say that his character remains the same, like ‘Tick is Tick.’,” Serafinowicz said.
“But actually, his character has changed over one season. He gets this incremental awareness and these finessed, emotional tools. ‘You unlocked the Finesse Tool!,’ you know? He’s not so primary colours about everything. He can start to see the shading and the patterns and the different hues.”
While viewers got to see Tick express some angst about his mysterious past in previous episodes, Serafinowicz says that plot thread won’t see any more action in the new season. “[Tick] was looking around at everyone, and everyone seemed to be suggesting to him indirectly that he should be more worried about this than he is.
So he thinks, ‘All right, I’ll be a little concerned about it.” He’s not really, you know? And then he sort of forgets about it. He’s lovely to play because he’s like a big blue golden retriever.”
“As the second season moves forward, Tick’s working hard to keep up with a world that is as complex as it is,” Edlund said. “His conflicts with that world become more clear, as do his issues with things like the natural level of deceit that we all live at.” Newman expanded on that by saying Tick starts to understand that sometimes you have to lie strategically for a greater good.
Speaking of greater goods, both Newman and Edlund talked about the tonal shift in season two being part of a larger plan. “Ben’s bigger idea was always to do a show that starts out feeling like it could be some Sundance drama, and as the Tick enters, the entire world transforms,” said Newman.
“Then you have everything slowly morph around the Tick. So the intention was always that the energy is going to change and the characters are going to change and the colour palette’s going to change.”
Furthermore, all of that change increases the likelihood that classic Tick characters will be showing up on the Amazon series. “That’s the challenge,” Edlund said. “Full success would be Chairface Chippendale on the show. We were looking to figure out how to make it work because it’s all dissonance and such a total stretch, right? I’m not 100 per cent sure how to do it but I’m dedicated to the quest because I feel like there’s a sort of a unification of the Tick universe that’s taking place in this.”
“We’re looking forward to next season, because the story is now ready for profusion,” Edlund continued. And Newman said there’ve been discussions to possibly include one very specific character from the Tick comics and animated show.
“If we bring Barry Hubris back, there’s obviously going to be a rivalry but I don’t think [Ben] is going to do a shot-for-shot recreation of ‘The Tick vs. The Tick’,” Newman told me. “Ben’s always gonna reinvent stuff and come up with some new riff on it.”
Wondering who might play the blustery billionaire who also wants to be an insectoid crimefighter, I asked Newman if Patrick Warburton’s name had come up, since he played the first live-action version of the Tick.
“I’m not going to say the name directly, but there’s been the internal conversation of who would play Barry Hubris,” he said. “It’s never entered a discussion on a contractual level. But I feel like the name that’s always floated internally is the exact name that people want. I think that would be very hilarious.”
Superhero fiction exists in many different forms and, while the various iterations of the Tick have toyed with different shadings, Edlund says he’s always clear about what’s at the character’s core, declaring that “the Tick practices radical love.”
“I cycled out of a cynical mindset somewhere in my late 30s and became a real sucker for hope. We’re at a deficit for tools of hope,” Edlund explained.
“We’re facing some real darkness in our present and also in our looming future. That’s going to require re-gathering of humanity, hope, and empathy. All these things are going to be very important. So, yes, hope. That’s the widget. The widget is empathy in action and I plan to sell it.”