TV Review: Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing has been canceled, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it
DC Universe’s third live-action original series, Swamp Thing, debuted less than two weeks ago, but has already been mysteriously and unceremoniously canceled. But like many one-season wonders can tell you, just because something has been canceled doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time. An enthralling blend of body horror, Southern Gothic, and comic book weirdness, Swamp Thing is the best version of itself. Minor spoilers ahead...
On the surface, you know exactly what kind of experience you’re going to get when you sit down to watch a show called Swamp Thing. A cursory familiarity with the property will lead you to believe that it is simply about a scientist accidentally transformed into a…well, Swamp Thing - and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but underneath the verdant protector’s mossy exterior lies some of the weirdest and most nuanced storytelling that DC Comics has ever offered. Created in 1971 by industry legend Len Wein, Swamp Thing’s initial run in the comics detailed a fairly straightforward story: a monstrous creature that used to be a scientist named Alec Holland hunts the evil men who murdered his wife and caused his transformation, while at the same time seeking a way to become human once again. But when venerated writer, anarchist, and ceremonial magician (yes, you read that correctly) Alan Moore took over the reins of the character in 1984, he transformed Swamp Thing into something much bigger and weirder in a three-year run that has since become iconic. DC Universe’s new Swamp Thing series, produced by horror guru James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious), doesn’t exactly lean hard into Moore’s trippier sensibilities, but it deeply delves into the same themes of identity, apotheosis, and environmentalism. With its Southern Gothic setting and gnarly body horror lens, Swamp Thing is brazen entertainment that forms a unique pop culture touchstone, even if it is extremely short-lived.
“With its Southern Gothic setting and gnarly body horror lens, Swamp Thing is brazen entertainment that forms a unique pop culture touchstone, even if it is extremely short-lived.”
Our new television version of Swamp Thing begins with a focus on Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed, Teen Wolf), a gifted doctor with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service. When a mysterious swamp-borne illness starts infecting flora and fauna alike in her hometown of Marais, Louisiana, she packs her bags to investigate. While Abby is a capable detective and medical professional, her return to Marais is not without complications - due to her complex relationship and muddied past with the powerful Sunderland family (Will Patton, Virginia Madsen), old wounds are quickly reopened upon her arrival. Uncovering the gruesome wake of the disease with her lab partner Harlan Edwards (Leonardo Lam, Westworld), they quickly cross paths with Alec Holland (Andy Bean, It Chapter Two), a disgraced scientist that has uncovered the likely source of the plague: a man-made mutagen accelerant that has been poured into the local swamp. But before anyone can even report the findings, Alec is attacked and dumped into the marshland, birthing the titular Swamp Thing.
While Swamp Thing is a comic book show at its core, it leans particularly hard into the horror genre. With producer James Wan, the series is fully reminiscent of body-contorting classics such as The Thing and The Fly, all the while laying on a patina of B-movie camp that fits right in with its gruesomeness. Whether CGI or practical, body horror typically lives or dies with its special effects, and I’m extremely pleased to say that Swamp Thing has some of the best makeup and production of any show, horror or not. A shockingly convincing blend of practical and computer-generated effects work, the series conveys some harrowing imagery - whether it’s grotesquely rent flesh, flora-ridden orifices, or swarms of carnivorous insects, Swamp Thing lives up to its skin-crawling pedigree.
Concerning the cast, Crystal Reed and Andy Bean make for compelling leads, and it’s easy to buy into their chemistry despite the show’s penchant for self-flagellating monologues. And even though I’m sure that Swamp Thing plays it fast and loose with its scientific and medical accuracy, part of its charm lies in the principal characters’ respect and dedication to their field of work, coming across in its Outbreak-esque scripting. Post-transformation, Holland/Swamp Thing is played by the inimitable Derek Mears of Friday the 13th fame, and even with extensive makeup and CGI, his decades of character and stunt experience lend a convincing aura around the green behemoth: there is a soulfulness to Mears’ Swamp Thing that elevates the show above its B-movie trappings. Swamp Thing also shines when it comes to its antagonists; imbued with a heavy dose of pathos, the Sunderlands are particularly effective foils brought to life by Will Patton and Virginia Madsen. Instead of being mustache-twirling schemers, their shared tragic past with Abby Arcane adds some much-appreciated nuance to a genre that oftentimes lacks such subtleties. And finally, one would be remiss in glossing over the talents Kevin Durand (Fruitvale Station, Tragedy Girls). The character actor chews up the scenery as the eccentric and frenetic Jason Woodrue, a biogeneticist that becomes increasingly obsessed with the otherworldly properties of the Marais swamplands.
Swamp Thing, unfortunately, was canceled mere days after its May 31st premiere. Originally, the blame was placed on a strange accounting error that allegedly decimated the show’s tax credits, but that was summarily debunked by both the state of North Carolina - where the show is filmed - and the production company. The cause of the show’s sudden axing is still an ongoing mystery, but just because Swamp Thing was unceremoniously cut short doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth watching. For fans of the character and fans of stomach-churning body horror, Swamp Thing is likely to be remembered as another one-season wonder: a stunning marriage of genres and a bold experiment in the superhero space that just didn't work out in the end.