Swamp Thing is cancelled: dead but not gone. In this age of streaming, it’s still up on DC Universe for all to see, but no more to come. It’s a shame, but perhaps not a surprise. The show had a lot of potential, all unrealized, but perhaps too many flaws and problems that might have sunk it.
What Went Wrong?
I don’t mean to kick this poor, dead horse but it’s an interesting case study. Call it our “Anatomy Lesson” where we cut open the show and muck around in its innards. We found a lot of moving parts, but they didn’t all work together and some of them were redundant.
The show should have been simple. It’s called “Swamp Thing”. That should have been the main focus, but strangely, the writers decided to go in the exact opposite direction. You’d think a show called “Swamp Thing” would be about the swamp thing. The comics did that.
Alec Holland was a scientist who created an experimental serum designed to restore plant cells. When corporate bad guys blow him up in his lab, he falls into the swamp and the Swamp Thing emerges. He suffered existential angst as he battled supernatural and human evil.
The show just took that basic premise and kept running away from it.
The Insistence on Ensemble Casts
The current trend in US television is a large ensemble cast. Think of any popular show. Game of Thrones, How to Get Away with Murder, This is Us, New Amsterdam, Blue Bloods, you name it. Virtually every show isn’t about a single protagonist but multiple main characters. Maybe this is so that the show isn’t dependent on one character to define or carry the show. Even shows named around a single protagonist like The Rookie have a large cast with separate plotlines for the supporting characters.
Swamp Thing attempted to recreate this dynamic, but with less success.
What’s Good and Bad with the Characters
The show takes supporting characters from the comics and turns them into prominent characters in the town of Marais. What we ended up with is a soap opera while the title character is relegated to the background.
Abby Arcane – Needless Tragic Backstory
Abby Arcane was the niece of the comics’ Big Bad Anton Arcane. In the show, she’s a courageous CDC doctor with the type of tragic history that TV shows demand for backstory that can be milked for maximum drama. She was adopted by Maria and Avery Sunderland and feels responsible for the death of their daughter Shawna. Abby becomes the main character of the show more than Swamp Thing is. She’s the point-of-view character, the one who’s proactive in chasing the plot, finding out what’s happening, and gets in danger. She’s the Scream Queen, the damsel-in-distress and Final Girl of horror movies. The Swamp Thing is more like her buddy who pops up at the end to save her.
Abby is the Main Character, Not Swamp Thing
The show spends more time with Abby than anyone else. She’s the one who links every character in the show, the one who searches for answers. She’s the one who keeps the Swamp Thing’s spirits up with pep talks and flirting. Even then, the show often fails her by constantly making her a damsel-in-distress who has to be saved by Swamp Thing. The show also spends way too much time away from her as it checks in on all the other characters.
There are too many character subplots in this show.
Abby doesn’t even do anything in the finale except show up at various characters’ plotlines to ask what’s going on and look confused.
Maria Sunderland – Angry Mother Created for Melodrama
Maria blames Abby for Shawna’s death and taps into black magic linked to The Rot, a dark force that exists in the Swamp. Okay, that’s fine in principle. Maria is a character created for the show to add more drama and conflict. She also gives the writers a reason to consult with Madame Xanadu, a DC Comics character who didn’t appear in the comics. Maria’s bitterness and suspicions about her husband lead her to eventually plot against him. Virginia Madsen fully commits to a role designed for melodrama.
Avery Sunderland – From Corporate Bad Guy to Soap Opera Bad Guy
Avery Sunderland was the head of a corporation that hunted Swamp Thing in the comics. Here he’s a slippery businessman who holds the town in his sway and funded Jason Woodrue’s research. He’s like J.R. Ewing in a supernatural show. He pretends to be a good guy but is utterly venal and self-serving. Nothing wrong with that in a series, and Will Patton is great at giving villains layers of flawed humanity.
Jason Woodrue – From Supervillain to Tragic Mad Scientist
Jason Woodrue was a minor comic book villain called the Floronic Man. Here he’s a mad scientist who creates the serum that was dumped in the swamp that caused the Swamp Thing’s creation. He also has a wife suffering from Alzheimer’s that he wants to cure. The show gives him some tragic pathos which largely works. I’ll give it that.
Sheriff Lucia Cable – Because Every Show Needs a Cop?
Lucia Cable is original to the show. She’s the hardnosed sheriff of Marais and also the mother of Deputy Matt Cable. She’s a protective mother and morally flawed. She has had a decades-long affair with Avery Sunderland and helps him cover up his crimes. There’s a generic nature in the way she’s written, as a flawed, morally-compromised character that cable shows seem to require. Much as I like Jennifer Beals, I felt she was there as a melodramatic plot device. It feels like she was created to eventually turn on Avery Sunderland and plot to kill him to generate more plot for later storylines.
Matt Cable – From Government Agent to Victim of Soap Opera Melodramatics
Matt Cable was a government agent in the original comic who believes the Swamp Thing is responsible for the death of Alec Holland. In the comics, he marries Abby before more crazy bad things happen. He eventually dies and becomes Matthew the Crow in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. It’s a long and convoluted story as only comics continuity can create.
In the show, Matt is a young deputy in Marais who carries a torch for Abby. He serves under his mother Lucia, the town sheriff who’s had a decades-long affair with Avery Sunderland. Matt turns out to be the one who shot and killed Alec Holland and is shocked to discover he’s Avery’s illegitimate son. Again, huh?? Do we really need all this soap opera for a show supposedly about a heroic swamp monster?
This show feels more like Dallas than Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing feels like an afterthought with all these characters going around messing with each other, only running into Swamp Thing along the way.
Madame Xanadu and Blue Devil were Completely Unnecessary
Madame Xanadu also serves as a link to another character from DC Comics. Dan Cassidy is a Hollywood stuntman sent to Marais by the Phantom Stranger to fulfill some vague destiny that involves protecting Abby Arcane. This leads to him becoming the Blue Devil, another DC Comics character who never appeared in the Swamp Thing comic.
Madame Xanadu was just there for vaguely mystical exposition. She and Cassidy could have been cut from the show and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The Blue Devil saving Abby in the penultimate episode could have – should have – been rewritten so Swamp Thing did it instead of Cassidy.
These characters were obviously stuck in the show to provide an unnecessary sense of a larger DC Comics continuity.
In principle, all the above would have worked better as individual episodes. As serialised storylines they kept delaying the truly interesting part of the show, which is the plight of the Swamp Thing.
As I watched every episode, I kept thinking, “When are we getting back to Swamp Thing?”
Why isn’t the Title Character the Main Character of the Show?
The problem with Swamp Thing is he doesn’t even feel like the protagonist of the show. The protagonist of a show should be the most proactive one. He should be the one searching for answers. He should be the one actively hunting the bad stuff infesting the swamp. Instead he just mopes around the swamp and disappears from every episode until Abby comes to the swamp in the last 10 minutes and he has to save her.
Swamp Thing is not at the center of the action or the stories. He doesn’t drive any of the plotlines. He’s not pro-active in any way, which is death for any main character. He’s completely passive, only reacting when situations wander into his path. Hs dwelling in the swamp puts him physically and geographically far away from all the other action in the show. He has to wait for things to come to him.
Did the writers or producers feel viewers wouldn’t want to watch a plant monster and prefer to look at the good-looking heroine more? It often felt that way. This show felt more like “Abby and her buddy Swamp Thing”.
What Defines a Protagonist
The protagonist should be the most interesting and multifaceted character in the story. The Swamp Thing of the show is very similar to the one in the comics, and hints at all the complexities and cosmic ideas. The show shied away from all that, hinting at it minimally while emphasising the banal soap opera plotlines of the human characters. It also buried the Environmentalist message that fueled Alan Moore’s run in the comics. Why did the writers do this? The comics already proved those were the parts that audiences found the most intriguing. Too many characters and plotlines felt pointless, just filling out the time when it should have spent more time with the main character.
The CW shows understand this best. The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and Black Lightning all center around the main character, whose mere presence drives the dynamic of the show. They have a direct effect on the world around them and the actions of the other characters. That’s the most basic requirement of any story with a single protagonist. It’s surprising that Swamp Thing failed this test in every episode. The comics never did.
For all the production values and good actors, you can’t have a good show if the scripts fall short. Writers and students can now study Swamp Thing as a lesson about storytelling mistakes.