Swamp Thing Series Review – Culled before it could bloom

With all of Swamp Thing now out on the DC Universe streaming service alongside shows like Doom Patrol and Titans, we can now look back at this strange, sometimes messy and definitely aborted show and see what worked, what didn’t, and what we missed out on.

There are spoilers for the Swamp Thing finale in this review.

A bit of context

With each new show that appears on DCU, the picture gets clearer: DCU is secretly making some of the coolest shows in streaming and no one knows it. Doom Patrol was the service’s triumph, and Swamp Thing its tragedy; this show has the makings of a great show, but issues behind the scenes with the production proved to be a monster far worse than anything producer James Wan could dream up.

Before we dive into the show, I want to set the context of where it’s coming from, because it’s impossible to judge accurately without knowing. Swamp Thing, like Doom Patrol, is not the first, second, or third thing you’d pick to build a show out of if hitting the mainstream was your primary goal. If you want to make a horror story in the DC comic book universe, though, it’s a great pick as one of the longest-running horror comics with some truly memorable runs.

But a special-effects-heavy show based around putting a guy in a costume is expensive, and expensive shows can often be dependent on outside help or be subject to closer scrutiny than less ambitious shows. The story at first was that North Carolina, where much of the show was shot, had left the production hanging with a much smaller financial contribution than it originally promised. That turned out to be false. Instead, it seems like some executives were trying to cut their losses. Just weeks before airing, Swamp Thing‘s run was cut from 13 episodes to 10, and then just after the first episode hit the air, the show was canceled completely.

It’s easy to see where the show’s final episodes left story threads hanging. I know better what to forgive, what to appreciate, and who to blame. Swamp Thing struggled, but made good on my hopes from the pilot.

A vibrant, verdant veldt

When Swamp Thing is given room to grow – pun definitely intended – it excels. The first episodes are gorgeous and scary. The image of a man frozen in front of his mirror, held upright by vines that sprung from his body, is horrifying. When the moving, shifting plant comes to life in the morgue, that’s exactly the kind of horror I live for.

The core of Swamp Thing is what works best. Alec Holland’s strange and tragic story and the villains he faces are compelling. Andy Bean didn’t get enough time to leave a strong impression as Alec. Derek Mears’ turn as Swamp Thing, though, shows that it’s possible to elicit genuine emotion out of a rubber suit.

Alec’s two adversaries – Avery Sunderland and Jason Woodrue – were fleshed out enough that they felt more like people than villains. Pun definitely intended. It’s an all-too-common mistake to make villains villainous in comic-book stories. Both of these characters get time to be people. Sunderland never once thinks he’s the bad guy, and he’d never believe anyone who told him as much. He knows that he’s so well-loved in the town of Marais that he can get away with anything. He’s a big man in a small town that, for all his money and power, is in way over his head from the beginning.

Jason Woodrue, meanwhile, is very much the obsessive mad scientist. His singular concern is studying the anomalous plant matter discovered by Dr. Abby Arcane in the swampland around Marais, with the hope that he might cure his wife’s quickly-advancing Alzheimer’s. But his obsessive tendencies push him to chase down the mystery at the cost of all else. He ends up losing everything in his quest for knowledge. Alec and Jason are Lovecraftian monsters, one the unwitting victim and the other the obsessive academic.

Both of these characters feel real enough that they’re at times creepy, sympathetic, and terrifying.

What worked less for me was the relationship between Abby and Alec/Swamp Thing. I did enjoy Crystal Reed as Abby Arcane – her very personal investment in so much of the story did work. Her concern as a doctor for both the young girl and for Alec’s plight throughout both felt genuine.

Nipped in the bud

Where it stumbled for me feels very much a result of the show’s clipped episode count. In the finale’s last moments, the story pushes for the soul-level connection that Abby and Alec share in the books.

Before that moment, though, the connection seemed more like that of two people who felt a strong connection borne from trauma. They were fast friends whose friendship was cut short, and who happened to have the ability to help each other.

Another three hours of screen time would have been plenty to cement the couple’s strange romance.

While Sunderland and Woodrue were both great characters, they fall victim to the show’s cancellation, too. We see Woodrue in his transformed state in a post-credits sequence at the end of the finale; I can’t help but think this was done to squeeze some value out of the otherwise unused rubber suit. We don’t see the transformation, though, and he goes from Mad Scientist to Super Villain in one cut. We see Sunderland cough up some plant matter, but we never get the catharsis of seeing him get his comeuppance.

And that goes for a lot of the show’s bits and pieces, too. We pick up scraps of information about the Green – the metaphysical world that connects Swamp Thing to his surroundings – but we never find anything concrete. We meet a mysterious, omniscient man who can give people monkey-paw wishes or reveal the secrets of the supernatural world. But we never learn anything beyond “oh, he’s probably the devil, that seems like a thing the devil does, right?” I’m all for mystery, but there just wasn’t enough there.

Some of the secondary characters suffer, too. We see Harlan hauled off in a truck and never get the chance to find out that he’s okay, or dead, or whatever else. And then there’s Ian Zeiring’s turn as Blue Devil. Zeiring is a charismatic actor and can’t help but be memorable, but we get so little time with the Blue Devil that we barely get to look at him.

And then there’s the mother-son Cable family. The actors did fine work with what they had, but the writers didn’t give them much to work with. The show wouldn’t be missing much without them. Matt was meant to be a love interest for Abby, as in the comics, but he never came across as much more than a bull-headed cop and a bit of a creep. His mom, Lucillia, was little more than a foil for Matt and Avery. I can’t help wonder how they made it past editing.

What could’ve been

Here’s where we’d start talking about Swamp Thing season 2, had it not been canceled. I’d love to see the show develop the Blue Devil and Swamp Thing’s growing supernatural world. I’d love to see how Maria Sunderland’s connection to the supernatural could make her a more powerful character. Abby and Alec’s relationship could develop.

The show started from Alan Moore’s incredible Swamp Thing run from the mid-80s. With more time, it would’ve ventured into the Green and met the Parliament of Trees; props for the Parliament were spotted online in leaked set photos before being scoured from the internet. Swamp Thing was already a Weird show, and it could’ve gotten so much weirder. Why Doom Patrol was allowed to flourish (and I’m glad for that) and this wasn’t, I don’t understand.

Swamp Thing’s cancellation feels like a crime. We’ll never know if the show could be great. Doom Patrol was a great, self-contained story that worked on its own. Swamp Thing, on the other hand, felt very much like the first season of a show. I’ll miss these characters, and wonder what could’ve been.

If you’re looking for more Swamp Thing, there’s a metaphorical ton of books up on DC Universe, and our Swamp Thing biography isn’t a bad place to start.