Strange Wetlands: Sci-Fi TV Review: “Swamp Thing” (DC Universe, 2019) Series (Coming Soon to the CW, Fall 2020)

“The swamp. It’s been damaged. It’s been abused.” –Swamp Thing

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Swamp Thing (DC Universe photo, 2019)

Bugs. Angry trees. Flesh-eating bacteria.

These are typical relationship problems between a scientist working in “epidemic intelligence” for the CDC, and a giant green monster, whose entire body is not only covered, but comprised of plant-material: vines, leaves, stems and tendrils. She’s petite, brilliant, fearless (sort of), and tenacious.

Swamp Thing has red eyes; his voice is a roar in the swamp. He is/was a biologist, researching a bio-restorative formula that might (have) advance(d) science and medicine—but something goes awry in the swamp during a reconnaissance mission. (Don’t you hate when your standard, run-of-the-millpond data collection sampling task transforms you accidentally into the data itself? It’s transformative. Wetland research, that is. But this TV series is a science-fiction series with very little reference to wetland ecology, which is one of the few things I found disappointing about it. (There are some references to cypress trees. I don’t think other plant species are named.)

When I started writing this blog series, I was fascinated with the original “Swamp Thing” comic series, and penned an “Ode to Swampthing” years ago. Later, I posted my take on “How to Design a Swampthing Costume.”

This is my review of the 2019 sci-fi TV series, “Swamp Thing,” (DC Universe, 2019) and why I feel it’s eerily timely (and binge-worthy) for wetland devotees. It’s going to appear on the CW this fall; it’s currently available on Amazon Prime and the DC channel. Len Wiseman is one of the directors and executive producers. Wiseman directed and produced the cool, dark “Underworld” series of vampire and werewolf flicks (which I loved), so I am drawn to other projects of Wiseman’s. This version of “Swamp Thing” has a good balance of light and dark, or I should say, a balance between the “green and the darkness,” the tension in the story, the threat facing the swamp’s ecology. The “darkness” is depicted as rotting vegetation, decay, vegetation overtaken by some kind of fungi, and rot as a metaphor for death. Unlike most swamp-horror on the screen, there are no suspenseful scenes with gators, crocodiles, or cottonmouths, or pythons. (There is a scary snake scene, but it’s not in the swamp.)

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The TV series was “cancelled” on other channels; I suspect that the producers and television managers didn’t think viewers at home would be interested in watching a series about a mysterious disease that’s nearly impossible to treat, spreads easily, causes tragic death and mayhem. In my opinion, I have had zero interest in watching “Tiger King” or some of the other shows that have popular almost to a cult following in 2020. Maybe I have strange taste? I am intrigued by the premise of this “Swamp Thing” revival and its chief conflict: Nature v. Man. So, without spoiling any fun for those who have yet to see “Swamp Thing,” you can probably guess a few things. Yes, the swamp is both the setting and a “character,” if that makes any sense. I appreciate the balance of creepy, supernatural effects with the “realness” of the swamp–the vegetation part of it anyway. There are few signs of wildlife in the series, which is odd, aside from insects. Lots and lots of insects! The heroine, Dr. Abby Arcane, is a practical woman. She wears practical outfits, although, I am surprised that she doesn’t wear rubber boots or hip-waders. She’s level-headed. She’s a logical thinker, but she has a vulnerable side, too–so she’s got the makings for a wetland-heroine. She cares about people–but she’s at home in the swamp.

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There are environmental violators who dump substances, illegally, into the swamp. And the swamp “fights back.” In a totally science-fiction way, at times, with horrific, gory special effects that emphasize the fecundity of insects in the swamp, the vegetation in the swamp begins to defend itself against the attacks of the environmental violators. For anyone who ventures into the swamp, no matter their intentions, the swamp seems to trigger traumatic memories. The trees remember. The plants have “memories” and they remember all of the violations (illegal dumping, bulldozers, axes, toxins, crimes, etc.)

No Spoiler alerts: I won’t give away any of the plot, although it draws from the original comic series, and involves many of the original characters. This series takes place in a small fictional, coastal town of Marais, Louisiana. (The show is filmed in North Carolina.) French for swamp, “Marais” was also the setting for the 1982 film, “Swamp Thing,” starring Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, and Dick Durock (as Swamp Thing). I’m not able to review the 1982 film, but I gather that the 2019 series draws some parallels, and even takes directly from their film posters to promote the 2019 series. Adrienne Barbeau reprises her role as the CDC’s Dr. Palomar, a director who supervises the work of Dr. Abby Arcane, the heroine of the 2019 Swamp Thing. See the two photos below.

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“Swamp Thing” (Film, 1982)

In the 2019 revival, Crystal Reed (of “Teen Wolf”) plays Dr. Abby Arcane, a brilliant doctor with the CDC, who grew up in the town of Marais, but for mysterious and tragic reasons, left for college fourteen years prior to her return to Marais in her official capacity for the CDC, which has sent her to Marais to deal with a strange and deadly disease, locally called “the green flu,” that somehow comes from the swamp. When Dr. Arcane visits the hospital for the first time, she encounters a charming yet arrogant plant biologist, Dr. Alec Holland, (played by Andy Bean) who tells her, “You’re going to want to talk to me.” Eventually, he convinces her to visit his lab that’s in a river cabin on stilts.  Fortunately, he’s not creepy, and he has a nice dog, and they talk. Dr. Holland shows her the strange discovery he’s made about the way the plants are growing; there’s some kind of accelerant in the swamp that’s creating lightning-fast growth.

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At no point in the series does Dr. Abby Arcane dress in a white frilly nightgown and sprawl in the swamp. She wears practical jeans, shirts, hiking boots, cargo jackets. She carries a flashlight, gear to collect samples. This promo poster (at the right) seems to sell some kind of sexual promise that is never fulfilled. Frankly, I didn’t need the nightgown-in-the-swamp scene.

Swamp soulmates? Alec and Abby really click.

Alec and Abby share stories from their past; they bond. They team up to figure out what’s causing the disease, to treat the patients dying of the “green flu,” and to analyze his findings of the unusual plant growth in the swamp. Dr. Holland sets out to collect further samples in the swamp. Dr. Arcane returns to the hospital to treat her first patient, a little girl named Susie Coyle, whose father has died of the “green flu,” in grotesque, horrific ways; she’s in the hospital with green snot. This wouldn’t be so unusual to see except that she seems to hear what the plants are “saying” to her. Something bizarre happens to Dr. Holland while he’s collecting samples in the swamp. Without ruining the suspense for readers, we all know from the comics that Dr. Holland becomes Swamp Thing. While in the full green costume, Derek Mears plays the Swamp Thing. Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Bride, The L-Word) plays the local sheriff, Lucilla Cable, a strong character, whose son, Matt, is also on the Marais police department (portrayed by Henderson Wade); Matt is a love-interest of Abby’s and was her high school classmate.

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Henderson Wade and Jennifer Beals in “Swamp Thing,” 2019

When Dr. Abby Arcane returns to Marais, she reconnects with old friends, but is haunted by the memory of her best friend, Shauna, who died under tragic circumstances in the swamp two nights before their high school graduation. Shauna’s parents, the wealthy, prominent Sunderlands (played by Will Patten and Virginia Madsen) are also Abby’s former foster parents. There’s some toxicity there—metaphorically juxtaposed by the illegal dumping of other (mysterious) toxins and substances in the swamp. It’s clear that the Sunderlands are at the heart of everything “dark” and illegal in town—but they live in a garish mansion, and keep up appearances at town hall meetings.

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One of my favorite moments occurs in Episode 7 of the first season of “Swamp Thing,” as Abby and Alec, who she can see as his former “charming self” through a mist of hallucinogenic flower swamp fairy dust, walk together in the swamp. (See photo above of the scene.) This is their conversation:

Dr. Abby Arcane: “I’ve spent my entire child in Marais, hours in the swamp, and I don’t think I’ve seen it this lush before. Plums appear. Flowers bloom. How is any of this happening?”

Swamp Thing/Dr. Alec Holland: “It’s …uh…a little hard to explain. Only that it’s not connected to a world that has anything to do with logic.”

Abby/Dr. Arcane: “Or science.”

Swamp Thing/Alec: “Well, science is real. It’s profound. But now I know that there’s other parts of this world that are just as profound, just as natural.”

Abby: “Like the green.”

The “green” is part of the essence of the swamp. It’s the very life of the swamp—its vegetation, its ecology, its deep ecology. And there’s a darkness, too. A dark ecology. The darker elements of the series stem from the destruction of the swamp. Locals who disrespect the natural ecology—whether by poaching, dumping and doing other “bad things” in the swamp, they’ve got some pretty bad swamp karma. And once the swamp starts “fighting back,” things get scary. Some scenes contain graphic violence, gore, largely of a plant-nature, however, sensitive viewers should be aware that there are scenes that truly could be called sci-fi horror. Personally, I dislike horror. Some scenes were too gross for me, but I watched the series because I was so enthralled with the story, and the character development, primarily of the hero (Swamp Thing/Dr. Alec Holland) and heroine (Dr. Abby Arcane), who both deeply respect the nature of the swamp. Dr. Arcane continually says that she is on the “human side” of this fight. Dr. Holland, a plant biologist, and once he’s Swamp Thing, he’s tapped into the “plant side” of the conflict. Be forewarned, however, if you’ve got any sensitivity around the themes of water-related or swamp-related death, including death by drowning, or if the sight of insects bothers you, this isn’t the series for you. For wetland regulators, and those who work in the fields of wetland science, policy, or wetland conservation, it might appeal to you—as long as you bear in mind that this is science fiction (sci-fi fantasy, bordering on sci-fi horror) with a wetland-hero, who punishes the violators.

Of course, there’s a mad scientist. Kevin Durand plays the strange mad scientist, Dr. Jason Woodrue, who is trying to find a cure for his wife’s Alzheimer’s, which is a noble cause. But his methods are atrocious, unethical, and unconventional. Think: vivisection.

The show also has some spotty plot-holes that take us out of the swamp, if temporarily. Tarot card readings (which, in my opinion, don’t include any real understanding of Tarot). Unethical research funding proposals. Infidelity. A strange, recurring guest-appearance by Ian Ziering (90210, Sharknado, Spiderman, JAG), who plays a guy who has a weird sort of “deal with the devil” that forces him to remain in Marais (not a well-developed aspect of the story, I’m afraid). Ziering’s character has a heroic moment later in the season as the “Blue Devil,” an electric fiery rescue-ranger.  The tragic loss of 18 year old Shauna Sunderland (one of the darker elements to the plot) that’s part of Abby’s back-story, adds a swamp-ghost story to the mix.

Swamp Thing: “That fight we just saw… it’s all around us. Here in the swamp. And it’s a fight to the death. Maybe I’ve turned into this thing to be a warrior in that battle.”

One thing that strikes me in this series is that Swamp Thing is a sympathetic, intelligent anti-hero, and he’s very sensitive. Despite his glowing red eyes, the costume designers and make-up artists on this production did a very good job of portraying this wetland-hero with a compelling nature. He’s not goofy-looking or just a big green monster. The actor who portrays Swamp Thing, Derek Mears, also does a very good job of delivering an authentic blend of the original comic hero with a contemporary sensitivity. I like it. I will be intrigued to see if CW decides to create a second season; as it stands, the DC Universe cancelled the show, and decided not to create a second season. There are ten episodes of Swamp Thing’s first season, and it has an “unfinished” feel to it at the end, due to the cancellation of the show mid-production.

Despite that, I liked this series.

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