Review: SWAMP THING 1×01 – “PILOT”
Director: Len Wiseman
Writers: Mark Verheiden & Gary Dauberman
Starring: Crystal Reed, Virginia Madsen, Andy Bean, Derek Mears, Henderson Wade, Maria Sten, Jeryl Prescott, Jennifer Beals, Will Patton, Kevin Durand, Ian Ziering, Leonardo Nam, Tim Russ, Elle Graham, Gregory Alan Williams, John Bishop, RJ Cyler, Tom E. Proctor, Charline St. Charles
Reviewed By: Ari Bard
When a dangerous illness infects the small town of Marais, Louisiana, CDC investigator Abby Arcane returns to her home town to investigate but isn’t welcome home by everyone. She also meets Alec Holland, a biologist studying wildly unusual plant growth in the area that he thinks may be connected to the disease. Together they investigate only to discover some terrifying results.
Swamp Thing is the third live action original show to air on DC Universe following Titans and Doom Patrol. Titans was a dark action drama with a lot of controversial takes on beloved characters and largely mixed reviews. Doom Patrol could not be more different, as it accomplishes a remarkable balance between tragedy and absurdist comedy, throws in a plethora of powerful character moments, and achieves near unanimous adoration. Swamp Thing also sets itself apart from its predecessors as an entirely knew beast.
In it’s pilot episode, Swamp Thing presents itself as a sort of science mystery horror show. Those may seem like three very unrelated descriptors, but it actually balances those ideas quite well. Both lead characters, Alec and Abby, have occupations rooted in science with Abby as a CDC investigator and Alec as a biologist. We may know that what’s going on here cannot be explained by science, but it’s interesting to see them try. Luckily, the show doesn’t get too bogged down in the jargon and instead cleverly uses it as a device to move forward. The show is rooted in the investigation of this unknown pathogen, but investigations can’t occur without leads. It’s the science behind the leads that propels the characters from scene to scene and it works. Seeing Abby and Alec do lab work and look at this unusual plant growth from different angles and through different machines is quite fascinating and did lead to some surprising developments.
If the science is the vehicle that keeps the show moving, the mystery element is the fuel. The show is trying to find out what caused this disease and how it can be cured. When characters have a reason to stick around through the horror, it makes them compelling. Abby and Alec are solving a mystery to help people, and even though we know what’s causing the illness, it’s still fascinating to watch the investigation unfold, mostly because they lead to elements of horror, which are fantastic. Swamp Thing’s pilot could have been a show filled with jump scares and an overabundance of blood and gore, but thankfully, it’s quite inventive. The show doesn’t rely on blood at all, only using it for more subtle flourishes, and instead relies almost entirely on the plant life to provide the horror. There is a very limited selection of properties that use plant-based horror, so Swamp Thing is able to try things we haven’t seen before. A lot of it deals with moving roots, plant tentacles, and irregular growth on walls, but that doesn’t make it less unsettling. Swamp Thing isn’t aiming for a lot of scenes that are downright scary. Instead there is a permeating atmosphere of uneasiness and discomfort that works a lot better for the show. The score is phenomenal, with music that sneaks up on you during key moments. It does a great job portraying different types of fear, as well as other emotions at different points in the show. This is a show centered around flora and the swamp, so all of their plant effects need to impress, and they do because of their realistic look and creepy movement. They aren’t using high-budget, blockbuster effects, but it’s more than enough to get the job done.
Nevertheless, no amount of special effects in the world can make a show interesting with out characters and a setting that pull you in, and Swamp Thing’s pilot achieves that through a sense of community. Titans and Doom Patrol felt very isolated. Sure people inhabited nearby towns so that they could run screaming once the action started, but it didn’t feel like they mattered. It felt like those two shows were only about the main characters and some unusual friends they met along the way. Swamp Thing’s small-town setting makes it feel like everybody matters. There’s a town hall meeting about the disease that features some angry citizens we may never see again, but it doesn’t change that fact that they feel like they were affected and that they matter. It keeps the show grounded when everyone has a stake in what’s going on. That being said, nothing holds this show together like Abby Arcane.
Crystal Reed gives a stunning performance in the pilot episode. When she takes her mask off in the opening scene, there is a comforting warmth that radiates from her character. She is someone who wants to help people and who wants to cure them. She is a character with very strong conviction, and the most centered lead we’ve seen in a DC Universe show. You feel relieved when she makes a break in the investigation. She is invested in her patients, and she cares more than most superheroes do. You may discover late that Abby’s haunted by memories of loss from her past and that she blames herself, but that doesn’t sour her character because of how pure of heart she’s already been show to be. She may feel haunted and she may have made mistakes, but her intentions are noble. Abby will be the reason you care about this show, and it’ll be exciting to see where things go from here.
Unfortunately, the pilot’s greatest set back is one of the most common in the horror genre: the lighting. This may be a horror-themed show, but that doesn’t mean that every day in Marais, Louisiana is dark, gloomy, and overly saturated. Ninety percent of the colors used in this show are various shades of green, brown, and gray. People can be happy in a horror show. There can be sunny days in a horror show. The lighting makes the show a bit frustrating to watch at times, and it takes away from the overall experience.
Alec is also a hard character to get behind. When compared to Abby Arcane’s character, it’s difficult to care about any other character in the show, but Alec especially was a bit of a letdown. His character is brash and a bit of an asshole in the beginning who warms up to Abby as the show progresses. As a viewer, however, it’s difficult to get over the initial attitude, and when his immoral past resurfaces, it’s even harder to root for him. In order to care about Swamp Thing, the show’s titular character, we need to care about Alec Holland, and the pilot episode was not convincing enough of why we should. He’s a biologist who breaks the rules, works for a private company harming the town, and falsified data in the past. While his personality becomes more charming as the show progresses, he remains a hard character to get behind.
Swamp Thing 1×01 adds a compelling science-mystery-horror show to it’s platform and continues to diversify it’s portfolio. Driven by compelling story elements, well-managed SFX, and a phenomenal lead character, Swamp Thing’s pilot is definitely worth trying.