"Pilot" & "Worlds Apart" – Swamp Thing S01E01-E02 Review

First of all, sorry for the relative lateness of the E01 review. I intended to review Swamp Thing it last week, but life (and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) happens. This week no S.H.I.E.L.D., so I had some spare time Friday night. And here we are.

Kevin Durand, Swamp Thing S01E02

And I'm glad I waited. The first two episodes are like a single two-part pilot. One gets the impression they were originally intended as a two-hour premiere, at least one main character, Lucilia Cable (Jennifer Beals) doesn't show up until the second episode. Blind Madame Xanadu (Jeryl Prescott Sales), who barely shows up in E01, has more to do in E02. Kevin Durand is credited as "Special Appearance", but he doesn't show up as Jason Woodrue until E02 either.

Waiting a week also let me overcome the "Gee, first episode" near-automatic enthusiasm that comes with... well, watching a first episode. The creative team often throws a lot of what they've got at the first episode. Yes, there's exposition and character introductions, but there's also a sense they threw more of the budget at the first episode to make an impression on the audience and get them coming back for more. Not so much these days with streaming channels and guaranteed full seasons, but the feeling is still there.

And also, possible spoilers: DC Universe has already cancelled Swamp Thing after one episode. Uh, huh? That makes no sense? The reviews out there have been generally favorable, and I doubt the viewer figures are low (compared to Doom Patrol?). The cancellation makes no sense. Hopefully it means the creative team will write a series finale rather than a season finale for the last episode.

So overall, I'm glad I didn't write a standalone review of E01 a week earlier. If nothing else, I would have looked like a dope predicting the show looks like it'll have a long run. But that's not my only reason. Part of it is the excitement of E01 doesn't carry over to E02. Swamp Thing is still new and different, but it's not that new and different.

Let's start with E01, "Pilot". For this telling of the saga of Swamp Thing, we get an outbreak of a mysterious green plant-related disease in Marais, Louisiana. This after we get a scene of three fishermen dumping boxes in the swamp. Two of them are killed by animated and apparently sentient vines, and the third one runs off into the swamp.

Crystal Reed, Swamp Thing S01E01

CDC doctor Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) is called back to her home town and is on the case along with her assistant Harlan (Leonardo Nam). A young girl, Susie Coyle (Elle Graham) is the daughter of the third fisherman above and becomes ill in class. It soon becomes clear she has some kind of psychic connection with the disease.

Dr. Alec Holland (Andy Bean) butts his way into the hospital, and he and Abby make eyes at each other. Alec is all loose and non-authoritarian and charming in a dropout kind of way. He and Abby hit it off, and he's soon telling her he's detected a plant accelerant in the swamp. Local deputy Matt Cable (Henderson Wade) goes with Abby to investigate the third fisherman's home. They find him dead, vines growing out of his body. When Abby and Alec do an autopsy at the hospital on the man's body, the vines come to life and start writhing around until Alec sets them on fire.

That night, Alec heads off into the swamp. A mysterious person shoots Alec and sets his boat on fire. Alec manages to make it to shore, is exposed to the accelerant, and becomes... Swamp Thing! Abby arrives and catches a brief glimpse of Swamp Thing.

Will Patton, Swamp Thing S01E01

Also, we're introduced to the Sutherlands, Avery (Will Patton) and Maria (Virginia Madsen). They control the Sutherland Corporation, which is apparently the only major business in town. Avery addresses the townspeople at a town meeting and assures them if the town dies, so does Sutherland. But it's Will Patton and he has that "Screw you" look in his eyes that suggests he's up to no good. We also find out the Sutherlands had a daughter, Shawna, and she died when she was in high school. She was best buds with Abby, who the Sutherlands apparently hold responsible for Shawna's death; which is why Abby left town fourteen years ago and is only now coming back.

We're also introduced to Abby's high school friend Liz (Maria Sten), who is all grown up and apparently the only reporter for the town's weekly newspaper.

In E02, "Worlds Apart", even less happens and already I'm bored. Swamp Thing (ST for short) moans and twitches in the swamp and tears chunks of plant life out of his body, only for it to grow back. Susie is in the hospital and experiences what ST experiences. The police search for Alec's body after the explosion but don't find anything, and Sheriff Lucilia shows up. The police have also sealed up Alec's lab, so Abby goes to Avery to give her access. He won't do it because there's proprietary data (send someone with her?), but apologizes for not backing her when Maria blamed Abby for Shawna's death. Abby isn't having it, and leaves.

Susie leaves the hospital and heads off into the swamps. Harlan looks concerned.

Andy Bean, Swamp Thing S01E02

We find out Liz has a lesbian lover, because it's 2019. Liz takes Abby to the video store Alec was living behind, and it turns out the owner is Danny Cassidy (Ian Ziering), a local boy who made good in Hollywood on the strength of one movie, Blue Devil. Alec left some video logs behind and apparently he was sending them back to his apartment in real time because one of them appears to be of the night he was killed when he was out in the swamp. Alec admits he finds Abby attractive (can't have an ugly girlfriend in Hollywood!).

Abby discovers Susie has stowed away in a game warden's boat, and she and Matt go after her. Meanwhile, the game warden confronts a local man and his partner, Munson, who are pulling a box out of the swamp. When the warden starts asking question, Munson runs him through the face with a gaffing hook. He spots Susie, and Susie runs off into the swamp with Munson partner in hot pursuit. The series so far is shot mostly in the dark, so I think Munson chases Susie into an old flooded and abandoned house. Swamp Thing finds them, and Munson stabs him. The wounds heal over, and ST growls in anger. The vines impale Munson, grab him, and pull him apart.

Abby finds Susie and sees ST nearby, but he doesn't do anything. The doctor grabs Susie and runs away, and as they head back to Marais, Susie tells Abby ST told her his name is Alec.

Virginia Madsen, Swamp Thing S01E02

Also, Maria is sleeping in Shawna's old bed. And as we see at the end, Shawna's reanimated corpse is in bed with her. Maria also pays a visit to Xanadu, who has a psychic shock and tells Maria to forget Shawna but Maria says she can't. Also, Jason shows up at Avery's beck and call. Jason created the accelerant, and Avery wants him to deal with the problems.

All the performances are good at best, average at worst. Reed and Bean set up a brief chemistry in the little time they have together before Alec becomes ST. Patton is subtly evil, Madsen is more blatantly evil but literally haunted. Ian Ziering is... Ian Ziering. Kevin Durand is lovable and goofy while still being arrogant and nerdy. Sten, Beals, Sales, and Wade don’t have much to do, but do well with what they have. Derek Mears is the voiceless costumed ST, and Mears certainly has the physicality for the part. And he's played monsters before in Sleepy Hollow and Grimm.

As I've noted before, I just find it boring. There's a certain amount of body horror going on, because it's streaming so none of that network namby-pamby stuff. Vines impale people and tear them apart, and a guy gets a gaffing hook through the cheeks. If you're looking for the Thing remake on a TV budget, Swamp Thing is the show for you.

But the plot so far is nothing special. Evil corporation is up to no good, they accidentally create something that turns against them. So far what we're seeing doesn't make much sense: are the plants alive, did they create ST, and why do they need ST? We see them in the first episode doing a pretty good job of protecting the swamp: did they create ST as some kind of avatar and if so, why do they need him when they can do the job themselves?

A lot of this series of Swamp Thing draws on the work of Alan Moore. Although there's no mention so far of Anton Arcane, Abby's uncle and ST's nemesis of sorts in his early comic book career. The problem with Moore is, while I admire his other work, (V for Vendetta, Watchmen), and like his work on Swamp Thing, said work is almost beyond duplication. I could dig on TV an avatar of the Green that encounters the Demon, Constantine, Dr. Fate, the Spectre, the Phantom Stranger, a Monkey demon, a cult of apocalypse bringers, female werewolves whose transformation is tied to their menstrual cycle, giving Batman the finger (so to speak), and traveling through time and space. But so far DC Universe seems to have no interest in going anywhere near that stuff.

The addition of Madame Xanadu is interesting, although making her a literal magical Negro seems a bit distasteful. As is adding the supernatural element of Shawna's ghost corpse. But so far it seems to be a separate story that came from a separate show. I'm sure the creative team will somehow do it, but so far I'm not seeing any coherent explanation for how a ghost daughter ties into a swamp creature.

But the main supernatural element of Moore's Swamp Thing was Swampy himself. He turned Swamp Thing from a rather boring "Scientist who tampered in God's domain and got in over his head", into something original with "Swamp Thing is a plant avatar who thinks it's Alec Holland, rather than Alec Holland becoming a plant creature."

Derek Mears, Swamp Thing S01E02

That might be too bizarre for the DC Universe-watching crowd. But then, that's what I thought about Grant Morrison and a TV adaptation of his Doom Patrol, too. And yet the creative team pulled it off there. The different creative team on Swamp Thing doesn't seem to have any interest in doing that. The problem is, without all of those esoteric elements, you're back with the basic transformed-scientist plot. Which was the plot of the comic book before Moore. And the plot of the two live-action movies. And most of the plot of the 90s live-action TV show. Which had its cheesy B-movie charms, even if most of it was crap.

Maybe the creative team here will change my mind. But I doubt it. Without that transformed-scientist element, the whole Abby/Alec relationship falls apart. And the first two episodes have spent a lot of time building it up. Granted, Abby and Swamp Thing in the Moore issues were an item. But the Abby there wasn't a professional CDC doctor: she was a sometimes-schoolteacher who spent a lot of her time cavorting in the swamp with her plant lover, wearing Daisy Dukes, and eating hallucinogenic-containing yams off of his body. No, really: look it up. No offense to Crystal Reed, but it seems like all that is beyond her talents. Or anybody's.

Another problem is Swamp Thing doesn't seem to have much to say. Doom Patrol "talked" about closeted gays, and transqueers, and deviants, and normalcy versus offbeatism. Titans was more narrative-neutral, but it was meant to kick off DC Universe. Baby steps, folks. Swamp Thing at best so far talks about environmental concerns. And they're the same old concerns you see everywhere: nature good, evil corporations bad.

Overall, Swamp Thing is an adequate horror story, and a different approach for the DC Universe channel. But that different approach makes it an odd fit. There's no mention of Batman, or Trigon, or the Justice League, or the Titans, or the Doom Patrol. There's nothing wrong with Swamp Thing being a separate corner of the DC universe, but it seems an odd choice given DC Universe is only doing one show at a time. If Swamp Thing was just one small part of the mosaic of superhero shows on DC Universe, it would work. But right now it's all we got. Build up your shared universe before showing the oddball corners of it.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?

Written by Gislef on Jun 8, 2019


Gislef posted 17 days ago

I wouldn't call the show "big budget" so far. The swamp scenes were probably done outdoors, but they don't look any more "real" than the 90s series. There's probably less SFX than on Doom Patrol. That could change down the road, sure. But it doesn't seem like a reason to cancel the show. As noted, cutting the episode count--and a change of venue--would likely solve most of their problems.

lordkinbote posted 17 days ago

From what I'd heard, the cancellation was due to bureaucratic financial issues with the contract DC had made with the state of North Carolina, where it was filmed. It seems NC reneged on their agreement to foot the bill for 1/2 of the production costs. So, since DC ended up paying the lion's share for this pretty expensive show when they were planning on paying for half of it, they cancelled it. I'd guess they'd have to find another state to film in (that would agree to the price of it) and I don't know if they tried and couldn't find others or they didn't bother because that would be even more money to build more sets and find locations elsewhere.

tnt posted 18 days ago

They've cancelled it even earlier, when they've cut down the production from 13 to 10 episodes ;)

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