DC Universe’s Swamp Thing Struggles to Manage Tone Amidst Flashes of Brilliance

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After two episodes, I’m not sure what to make of “Swamp Thing,” the latest entry in the DC Universe streaming series catalog of shows that feel more adult than what you might see on The CW but not quite adult enough as something you might see on HBO or Cinemax. The best elements of “Swamp Thing” feel deeply inspired by John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” and there are even a few flashes of icky body horror that brought the master of that, David Cronenberg, to mind. In between those visual flourishes is a show that would fit in fine on The CW, complete with flat dialogue and dull characters. “Swamp Thing” only occasionally springs to life, and that’s a tough sell when the episodes run an hour, and its uncertain where the season is headed. It’s one of those programs that I wish I had seen more of but can’t really recommend after just a pair.

First, there’s something you should know. DC Universe pulled a switcheroo on this show, cutting the episode order from 13 to 10 in the middle of the season’s production. How exactly that’s going to work is unclear. Will the final arc of the season feel rushed? Doesn’t it seem impossible for it not to impact the overall season? Surprisingly, they didn’t delay the premiere, so they’re satisfied enough to stay on track, but one has to wonder how this will play out, and be prepared to invest in something that could come apart mid-season and later. Of course, maybe it was the right decision and all will work out in the end— but tumultuous behind-the-scenes drama rarely leads to smooth sailing.

Based on what I’ve seen, I wish the decision to compress “Swamp Thing” into 10 episodes had been made earlier. The nearly-60-minute premiere could have easily been 45 or so, and the show reminded me of the Netflix Bloat that infected the Marvel Original series, almost all of which could have been 30-40% shorter. The sad thing is that there are things to like here. Doing a modern update of “Swamp Thing” with an R-rated, Cronenbergian sensibility? Sign me up. However, the premiere takes a full 60 minutes to get us to Swampy’s reveal.

Before then, we see something is very wrong in a swamp in Marais, Louisiana (you’ll just have to deal with a show set in the Bayou in which no one has a hint of an accent). A clever opening scene sees a couple of men at night in a boat who are basically attacked by the swamp—vines, moss, and branches overtake their boat and turn it into something the monster from “The Thing” would have dug. Meanwhile, people are getting sick in Marais, including a kid with something slimy coming out of her orifices. She seems somehow attached to the swamp, and her case brings an officer from the CDC named Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) and a biologist named Alec Holland (Andy Bean). It’s actually a homecoming for Abby, who has a dark history with her hometown, including the death of her friend Shawna, the daughter of a powerful local businessman named Avery Sunderland (Will Patton) and Maria (Virginia Madsen).

Of course, anyone who knows even a little about the source material knows that poor Alec will eventually become a mossy behemoth named the Swamp Thing, played under a bunch of makeup by the legendary Derek Mears. Executive produced by James Wan and directed by Len Wiseman, the show has just enough icky, gooey stuff to keep it entertaining on a B-movie level. However, the acting and dialogue can’t find the right tone. If they had gone full-blown B-movie like “Ash vs. the Evil Dead,” it might have worked, but scenes like a crazy bit of effects work in a hospital in which a body becomes very animated clash with ones in which Madsen vents at her dead daughter’s best friend, whom she blames for the loss. There are like four shows competing for air in this swamp, and right now, only one of them is interesting.

Two episodes screened for review.

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