Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Dick Durock, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Carrell Myers, Jesse Zeigler, Scott Garrison
Directed by Various
Distributed by Shout! Factory
When I was offered the opportunity to review the four-disc, 22-episode box set of the first two seasons of “Swamp Thing: The Series” I was looking forward to doing so. I hadn’t seen the show in about 15 years when it originally aired on the USA Network back in 1990 and couldn’t wait to get a look at it again. I knew it wasn’t a great show and if I missed an episode here and there I wasn’t going to kick myself, but my memories remained positive. That all changed the moment I finished watching the first episode and came to the horrible realization that it was completely devoid of anything resembling a storyline or substance. Watching subsequent episodes I quickly came to the realization that the program I had fond memories of was simply terrible. In fact, I’ll go so far as to declare the first season of “Swamp Thing” to be amongst the worst written television I have ever seen. Swamp Thing opens each episode warning “DO NO BRING YOUR EVIL HERE!” I think they cut him off before he added, “OR YOUR QUALITY SCREENWRITING!”
A big deal is made on the packaging that the season one episodes are in order, unlike when USA Network originally aired them almost backwards. So what? The program had so little continuity going for it that only the first and last episodes of the season being out of order would really make a difference. In one instance being shown way out of order might have been a positive. If you’re unfamiliar with the DC Comics character, either of the two Swamp Thing movies or the short-lived cartoon and this low budget cable series is your first introduction to the character of Swamp Thing, you wouldn’t get an explanation as to how Dr. Alec Holland became the mossy mutant title creature until at least a dozen episodes into the series. That really wasn’t something they needed to keep viewers in the dark about for that long.
We will not, however, ever get any sort of explanation as to how or why his transformation led to him developing supernatural powers, such as the ability to control plant-life, communicate with plant-life, heal wounds and breath life back into people and plant-life, and if need be, transform really bad people into trees. He has other powers, too. All his powers have no consistency aside from that which is most convenient for the writers of the episode.
Nor will we get a decent explanation as to why his transformation into a swamp-dwelling moss man also transformed him into a deep-thinking pontificator. Swamp Thing isn’t so much an evildoer-fighting monstrosity as he is a metaphysical, muck-covered Deepak Chopra. Imagine Morpheus from The Matrix movies crossbred with Gumby and you get the idea. By the second season pretty much every episode will conclude with Swamp Thing giving us his best Rod Serling impression trying to impart us with a moral to the story. Those morals will prove so vapid as to make the typical Jerry Springer “Final Thoughts” sound genuinely insightful.
The bigger problem with the show is that Swamp Thing is far too often reduced to being a bit player in his own program. The focus is usually on characters like Jim, the young boy who Swamp Thing befriends; his MILF mommy Tressa, who Swamp Thing also seems to fancy yet nothing ever comes of it; and, of course, his arch nemesis Dr. Anton Arcane, played amicably by Mark Lindsay Chapman sporting a head of hair that leads me to suspect his first diabolical experiment was to transplant Michael Landon’s hair onto his head. It’s expected that many episodes would revolve around Swamp Thing trying to thwart Dr. Arcane’s wicked schemes, yet more often than not Arcane’s evil schemes don’t seem all that wicked. And either way Swamp Thing’s role is reduced to batting clean-up after the majority of the episode has focused on Jim or Tressa having to contend with whatever evil is afoot, not all of which even involves Arcane. One thing is a guarantee: the resolutions were consistently lackluster.
Take, for example, an episode that has Swamp Thing rendered powerless and locked away in a local freakshow attraction alongside other victims of Arcane’s mutation experiments. Jim has to come to the rescue. The conclusion of this episode will have all the freaks unleashed and getting their hands on Dr. Arcane. Do they tear him limb from limb for what he did to them? No. Instead they body surf him towards the entrance of the tent and toss him out on his ass. That’s it. That’s their comeuppance for the man who destroyed their lives. Really lame stuff.
It also becomes quickly apparent that the one thing the makers of the series did not want was for the show to fall into the realm of camp, admirable only if you provide compelling storytelling. So damned determined to be taken seriously is “Swamp Thing” that even when it does take a turn from the unintentionally campy there’s little entertainment value because they’ve sucked every last bit of fun out of this series. The writing of the first season is absolutely pathetic, lacking both focus and drama, and often devoid any real sense that there’s a story arc playing out.
There’s also no excuse for a 22-minute program to have this much filler. Too often time is killed showing characters walking around the swamp or the town almost aimlessly, at the very least with a feeling of little purpose for doing so. This is inexcusable.
Take for example an how episode where an assassin with his arm in a sling targets Arcane; after spending the bulk of the episode merely following Arcane around town, Swamp Thing confronts the hitman who pulls his arm out of a sling to reveal a giant turkey wing. It literally looks like they sewed the wing from a Woodsy Owl costume onto the guy’s shirt. Swamp Thing’s immediate reaction is to say, “There are so many beautiful birds in the world; why would he want to change a man into one?” To which the one-winged bird man reveals himself to have originally been a falcon that Arcane attempted to turn into a man and now he’s really pissed because he cannot fly and hates being a lowly human.
I’ll admit that when this potential killer unveiled his giant turkey wing arm I almost fell off the sofa laughing. Nothing else I ever saw came close to matching the hysterics of this image. Bu that aside, the episode remains a complete dud because as is far too often par for the course it has a set-up but no drama and a resolution that falls flat. In this case the man-bird rescues a drowning boy and realizes being a person isn’t so bad; his lust for revenge apparently gone. So what next for the winged samaritan? Does he become a turkey-winged Baywatch lifeguard or go to med school to become a life-saving doctor with one of the Gobbeldygooker’s arms? We’ll never know because the episode just ends and this character is never seen or heard from again. Lame.
Future season one episodes will feature such sleep-inducing storylines as the misadventures of Swamp Thing trying to escape Jim’s house without being seen by Tressa, random criminal types inevitably ending up out in the swamp for our title character to contend with (but usually not until he’s given them at least one good lecture about the poor life choices they’ve made), and random acts of Arcane-ness, whether it being trying to swindle a single mom out of her late mother’s home or creating poisons and toxins of varying degrees of lameness.
Okay; one more example, one that typifies everything wrong with season one. The episode starts with Swamp Thing showing Jim an unnatural section of the swamp and telling him never to come here again. One jump cut later and Jim is shown coming there again. He’s immediately bitten by a mutant fly and runs away. Another jump cut later and we’re shown Tressa weeping as an unconscious Jim is being stretchered out of their house into a waiting ambulance. The remainder of the program takes place at the hospital with Jim in a coma, Tressa an emotional wreck, and the doctors baffled by the unidentifiable insect bite. Then way too much time gets devoted to Arcane showing up and having to masquerade as a doctor just so that he can get into Jim’s room and re-confirm the insect bite for himself. Then he leaves.
Meanwhile, Swamp Thing’s “Spidey-Sense” had gone off telling him Jim was in dire need of his help so now he too arrives at the hospital. We’re supposed to believe that this hulking mass of swamp matter is getting around this hospital undetected by maneuvering through the crawlspace in the ceiling like he’s John McClain. Once he makes it to Jim’s room he’ll proceed to stand right in front of an observation window completely unseen by anyone because the nurse has her back turned (also because no one else seems to ever walk down the halls of this dimly lit hospital) and proceeds to give the young boy what looks to be a chlorophyll transfusion.
Elsewhere in the hospital, that mystery insect has also found its way to the hospital. Now its Tressa’s turn to contend with the bug; the actress is basically called upon to perform a one woman mime routine with the air around her for several minutes. Though herself bitten and showing symptoms, she still manages to kill the fly and take it back to the doctors. They’re able to diagnose a cure for its toxin after looking at it under a microscope for about a minute. She’ll run down the hallway to Jim’s room ecstatic they can save their lives only to find him already a-okay thanks to Swamp Thing having injected him with that glowing goo from his veins. Fade to black.
If I have made this episode sound campy or compelling or action-packed or anything that seems even remotely entertaining in the slightest then let me apologize for having done a disservice. This episode is the death of television. And the worst part is that episodes like the one I just summarized were typical to what the average show was like during the first season.
This isn’t merely a case of a series trying to find its footing. It’s quite apparent that the people making this show didn’t seem to know what the hell they were doing in the beginning.
Fortunately, something clearly went down behind the scenes on the production end somewhere along the way because the final three or four episodes of the first season showed an upswing in the writing that would lead into season two. I’m guessing USA Network brass stepped in and demanded some dramatic improvements. Amongst those improvements for season two: getting rid of young Jim and sexing things up a bit by introducing Tressa’s hunky young stepson, Will, and a young doe-eyed (and frequently wet) Kari Wuhrer as the almost child-like Abigail, a buxom young thing herself the product of a scientific experiment. If you’re familiar with Swamp Thing canon then you know Abigail to be the name of Swamp Thing’s comic book love interest, played in The Return of Swamp Thing by Heather Locklear. No plant-on-girl nookie in this show, at least none in season two. Tressa, meanwhile, is pretty much reduced to a third-string character along for the ride.
Also on the plus side, Dr. Arcane and his schemes begin to feel like genuinely nefarious enterprises and his doing so is actually given a purpose aside from being an evil scientist. He now works for an unscrupulous wheelchair-bound general up to no good. They’ve also gone and given Arcane the Mr. Freeze treatment; he now has a deceased wife in an incubation chamber that he talks to lovingly and vows to resurrect one day.
Storylines finally shows signs of actual imagination, taking a turn for the fantastical with plots built around genetic experiments, body swapping, earthquake machines, cyborgs, force fields, evil Swamp Thing doppelgangers, and so on. The episodes now feel like actual self-contained stories and not just meandering, unfocused messes more likely to put you to sleep.
Unfortunately, for all the season two improvements, the show still isn’t very good. It’s merely gone from being virtually unwatchable to being barely passable entertainment, the sort of TV show that I could imagine someone having on the in the background half paying attention to while they’re doing something else, but not the sort of show one would go out of their way to watch.
The only DVD extras we get are a pair of interviews billed as “The Men Behind the Muck”. The first is Swamp Thing creator Len Wein essentially giving us the history of the character. Curiously enough, he says next to nothing about the TV series other than being complimentary of Dick Durock’s portrayal of the character. This leads into the second interview with Durock, a likeable guy who gives us his own 40-year history in Hollywood as a stuntman-actor and his thoughts on playing Swamp Thing in both the films and the TV show, mostly about the difficulties of the suit and make-up. Durock praises the TV show. He was certainly better in the role than any of the material he was ever given to work with.
I have a sneaking suspicion there’s going to be a bunch of people like myself who are going to have a very similar reaction to seeing “Swamp Thing” again for the first time after all these years. I don’t know if I can attribute it to the folly of youth or the passage of time making me fondly remember something being better than it actually was but I’d always recalled enjoying “Swamp Thing” when it first aired.
Then again, there may be those of you who can look past the subpar writing, unengaging characters, not take notice of all the opportunities Swamp Thing gets to eliminate Arcane yet never does so, and enjoy the show in all its shoddy glory. Heck, there’s probably some of you out there that’ll enjoy it just for the weird midget fetish the show displays early on.
I leave you with this exchange between young Jim and Swamp Thing from the show’s very first episode.
JIM (upon first meeting Swamp Thing): “If I was a dumb kid I would think I was dreaming.”
SWAMP THING: “Only dumb kids dream.”
Several episodes down the road Swamp Thing’s show-ending words of wisdom will be all about the importance of people having dreams. Hypocrite.
2 out of 5
2 out of 5
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