Swamp Thing is the best horror show you’re not watching right now, probably because you have to subscribe to the DC Universe streaming service – and because you know it’s “dead show walking” now that it’s been cancelled after only one episode (and strong reviews). I don’t blame you for not bothering to subscribe. There are too many streaming services already and more to come – and tough to emotionally invest in a show that won’t last.
Anyway, Swamp Thing is a perfectly decent show that synthesizes and adapts both Len Wein and Alan Moore’s comics runs into a new version for TV. It uses more of Moore’s run than you expect, weaving his ideas into the fabric of the story from the start. The only big difference is that for a show called “Swamp Thing”, it relegates the title character to supporting character status. It should really be called “Abby Arcane and her Buddy Swamp Thing.”
Yup, the main character of the show is Abby (Crystal Reed), not Alex Holland (Andy Bean). She gets more screen-time per episode than he does. Swamp Thing only appears in about one-third of the time. She’s the CDC doctor with the tragic backstory, and the conflicted relationships with people in town, and the heroic motivation to investigate mysterious infections. The show follows her more than any character in the show. Alec Holland is the disgraced scientist she meets and becomes attracted to who becomes the Swamp Thing. He has enough layers to be the main character because in the comics, he was.
The comics by Wein, Moore, and Martin Pasko featured Swamp Thing as the point-of-view character. He narrated the story to show his existential despair at being trapped as a monster in a world that fears him. The show turns Abby into the point-of-view character that we follow. It feels like a studio development note.
“Swamp Thing” & TV Show Tropes
Much of the show feels like typical tropes from the Hollywood development process:
● “Let’s make the love interest the main character because she’ll attract female viewers.”
● “Let’s give her a tragic backstory in the town where she had prior relationships with the people in the town. She blames herself for her best friend’s death and so does her friend’s mother.”
● “Let’s make her a heroic and compassionate CDC doctor and give her lots of ‘save the cat’ moments.”
● “Let’s give her a diverse cast of best friends, frenemies, enemies and old flames you want to keep seeing her interact with. Oh, and let’s have a kid for her to care for because ‘save the cat!’ Nothing makes a character more sympathetic than to have her care for a kid!”
And you know what? I don’t mind.
The episodes are written, acted, and directed well – and the show is fun, so I don’t mind at all – and it doesn’t seem like the viewers I’ve spoken with seem to mind, either.
The Comfort of Familiarity
The structure of each episode is the same: Abby uncovers something weird going on. Swamp Thing is seen in the beginning briefly. The rest of the episode follows Abby as she investigates the weird, horrible thing. Things get really bad and Abby has to confront the weird, horrible thing. She ends up with the weird, horrible thing in the swamp. Swamp Thing shows up as the deus ex machina to deal with the weird, horrible thing.
And that’s fine: that’s the nature of format and formula in storytelling. They’re not masterpieces of storytelling, but the characters are interesting enough to make me keep watching. The single issues of Moore’s run also followed a similar structure.
It’s too bad the show was unceremoniously cancelled after the pilot aired. It looks like it’s building up to an adaptation of Moore’s seminal story “The Anatomy Lesson,” one of the most influential comics stories of the past 30 years. There was a rumour that John Constantine would appear in Season Two, but that won’t happen now.
It’s interesting to see how the writers reconfigure the original comics into the show, even if they cut out the more overt politics that lent the comics their edge. As it is, we can only wonder what future seasons would be like – settling for just one good season, another good show prematurely cancelled.