It's no surprise that Swamp Thing is the latest original series from the still fledgling DC Universe, particularly because the way for such a title has been paved by the supremely weird and mostly successful Doom Patrol. It also comes to the streaming service with plenty of genre clout behind it. The series is executive produced by horror maestro James Wan — aka the guy who turned Aquaman, the butt of everyone’s fish jokes, into a billion dollar franchise — and the first two episodes are directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld).
The pair, along with writers Gary Dauberman and Mark Verheiden, aim to turn DC’s resident muck monster into a horror series that peppers its persistently gloomy bayou setting with hints of John Carpenter’s The Thing. As inspirations go, Carpenter’s practical effects horror classic is a solid choice, and, to its credit, Swamp Thing delivers a few memorable moments of body horror, including one that is a direct lift of the unforgettable heart attack scene from Carpenter’s film. Content restrictions being what they are on DC Universe, and with the likes of Titans and Doom Patrol setting a high bar for extreme violence and salty language, Swamp Thing’s affinity for dimly lit rotting corpses and murderous plant life allows the series to deliver on its allusions to one of the greatest genre films of all time.
However, the pilot is episode so eager to prove its capable of living up to its cinematic hero that it forgoes introducing its title character until very late in the first hour. The result is a series premiere that puts atmosphere before character, and minor spectacle before story. DC Universe only provided the first two episodes in advance to critics, which in itself is enough to generate some concern about the series moving forward. But it also makes it incredibly difficult to determine what sort of story Swamp Thing is trying to tell.
Concern generated by the pilot’s shortcomings are exacerbated by last month’s news that production on the first season was abruptly halted, with the series cutting its original episode order from 13 to 10, leaving the writers to move things around so that episode 10 could function as the season finale. Co-star Virginia Madsen, in a now-deleted social media post, said she was “beyond sad” at the “terrible decision.” While some speculated that the move was a sign things weren’t going well for DC Universe as a whole (or that it was about to be swallowed up by the upcoming WarnerMedia streaming service), that is apparently not the case, and the official reason for the truncated first season has since been labeled as a “creative decision,” which is just vague enough to mean anything. What the streaming service is left with, then, is an hour-long preamble that introduces disgraced research scientist Dr. Alec Holland (Andy Bean) and CDC specialist Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) as they investigate the troubling outbreak of a mysterious illness and its potential connection to a strange mutagen and biological accelerant turning plant life into the next great threat to humankind.
It’s possible that Swamp Thing will reveal itself to be an ecological revenge drama destined to help the world forget The Happening ever happened. But at the end of the first hour, the show seems miles away from that being even a remote possibility, mostly because there’s very little to go on in terms of what the series actually is or what it wants to be. Though it is at times captivating with its nausea-inducing practical effects (the CGI stuff is less impressive), it’s not enough that the first hour plays like a horror movie, because at a certain point, even the horror begins to feel recycled (when you’ve seen one body with vines wriggling through every orifice you’ve sort of seen them all).
In addition, there are a number of things Swamp Thing struggles to do well beyond its inability to precisely convey its storytelling intentions upfront or, you know, put Swamp Thing in its first episode. Some of that is because the first hour is stricken with a bad case of pilot-itis, symptoms of which include wooden dialogue to explain things that don’t need to be explained, mostly in an effort to convince viewers that its leads are even vaguely believable as scientists. Other symptoms include connecting the possible Big Bad(s) — in this case, a scenery-chewing Will Patton (Falling Skies) as the cartoonish, bog-born industrialist Avery Sunderland and his wife Maria (Madsen) — to a traumatic event in Abby’s past that is only mildly more interesting than Alec’s own complicated past, which is brought up via, of all things, a Google search.
Swamp Thing wears its horror aspirations on its sleeve, but in the first hour that ultimately doesn’t mean much beyond underlining the movies it’s obviously cribbing from (or paying overt homage to, take your pick). Episode 2 doubles down on the horror, introducing a powerful supernatural element tied to a grieving mother, but even that feels at odds with the idea of a man-made biological accelerant giving the vegetation in a fictional swamp an almost sentient quality. And although Swamp Thing himself is more physically present in the second hour, the show approaches him from such a distance that the only insight into the character’s state of mind — either as the creature he is now or the man he used to be — is communicated through a character who shares an unexplained psychic connection with the monster, effectively turning him into a tertiary character in his own story.
The door is open for the series to offer a critique about the environmental destruction wrought by capitalism and industrialization, but it remains to be seen whether or not DC Universe wants to walk its nightmarish bog creature through it. It doesn’t bode well that “creative decisions” reduced the season’s length by three hours, but it’s more troubling that the first hour feels equally unfinished. And that's only partly because of the flailing, inauspicious debut its title character makes in the episode’s closing seconds.
There is hope that what remains of the season will make for a thrilling addition to the DC Universe lineup. But judging from the rough pilot episode and that the second hour is largely a boilerplate continuation of an origin story in need of some editing, Swamp Thing is going to have trudge through miles of muck in order to get there.
Swamp Thing premieres Friday, May 31 on DC Universe.