After a long hiatus and considering how many episodes have been covered in this feature so far, I thought a recap might be in order. Even long-time readers may not recall all the substance and nuance of the USA Network’s early-1990’s late-night television series, Swamp Thing…
Swamp Thing ran during a late-night block on the USA Network from a period between 1990 and 1993, and appeared to have spun off directly from the 1982 Wes Craven film (but not its 1989 sequel, presumably being filmed while the TV series was already well into production). As in the film, Anton Arcane seeks the secret of the bio-restorative formula, a creation of brilliant chemists Alec and Linda Holland. When their lab is destroyed by Arcane’s men, Linda is killed and Alec rushes off into the swamp, only to emerge later as a garbage bag full of brussels sprouts. Then, there are mutants.
The TV series returns Alec and Linda to marital status (the Craven film cast them as siblings, so that Swamp Thing could chase Adrienne Barbeau around a coupla ferns here and there), adding a new supporting cast (but keeping the mutants). Ostensibly set in Houma Louisiana, the series is filmed on the Universal Studios Backlot, and sure looks like it.
Chief among the show’s supporting cast is Tressa Kipp (Carrell Myers), matriarch of a weird, partially-shirtless clan of dangerously slow-witted boys. Kipp returns to her native Houma in the wake of a messy divorce, eventually setting up a swamp boat business on the edge of her family estate. She provides a half-hearted and only occasional love interest for Swamp Thing whenever the writers remember that they’re supposed to be putting that in the stories. It’s believable because she goes full thirst on any half-handsome bachelor who walks into her line-of-sight (half of whom try to kill her or someone she loves, but hey). Also – and I hate to say this, because I’m sure she’s perfectly fine in another genre, another venue, but – she is terrible at acting. Just … just so bad. It’s like her face refuses to do the emotion the script says she’s supposed to. “Do angry” and she whistles through her fingers or something. Something should have been done.
Tressa’s youngest is the alarming Jim Kipp (Jesse Ziegler), a troubled pre-adolescent whose pathology manifested itself in that he used to sneak out of his home late at night and wander the darkened streets of Philadelphia with no fixed target, for no apparent reason. Jim is a psychopath and generally got Swamp Thing into way more trouble than he solved – possibly on purpose. I can’t imagine that anyone liked Jim. Who was tuning in going “Shit, I hope that malevolent dwarflet with the porcelain rictus of gloom lurks into this episode!” Madness. Jim is anathema. The writers do us all a favor by having him abducted and sent to a work camp in Brazil. The abduction is covered up by staging a deadly accident in which Jim’s bike collides gently with a parked car AND THEN EXPLODES. That’s obviously suspicious, but Jim’s mom just takes it at face value. Again, that’s probably on purpose.
Filling Jim’s slot – and not just Jim’s, rowrr – is eternally-unsleeved Will Kipp (Scott Garrison), Jim’s older half-brother and the show’s handsome new leading man. Way too many episodes focus on Will, who received a muscle shirt instead of a personality, generally speaking. Again, the writers are no saints in this situation. Will forms a bond with Swamp Thing not dissimilar to the one shared by the bog-monster and Jim, except without how you’re thinking “this kid should be in therapy. This kid should be in jail.” The thing about Jim is that, when they let him do a little light comedy supporting player routine, he’s a really fun character. Now ask your second question: How often do they let him do light comedy as a supporting player? Not often, kids, not often …
Abigail (Kari Wuhrer) shows up in the second season, when the show was deliberately importing elements from the acclaimed comic. While both the comic book and the theatrical Abigails were the niece of Anton Arcane, this Abigail is basically a fruitfly. Grown in a secret lab by the evil and forever-unseen Dr.Jason Woodrue (another comic reference), Abigail possesses minor telepathic powers and precognitive ability. She’s also a manic pixie dream girl type, and her deal is she concocts horrible natural poultices and such for every purpose – food, medicine, car wax, the possibilities are endless! They don’t give her much to do except to lean out of windows, way far, a little further Kari, okay, Camera Two, really get in there, you got the shot? if you catch my drift. She couldn’t have enjoyed having practically nothing to do except vamp on a show which regularly contained about eleven minutes of dead air per episode, and so is killed as she lived – in a fog with a tiny child riding on her shoulders like a monkey.
The real stars of the show are, naturally, Swamp Thing and Anton Arcane. Reprising his role from the Craven films, Swamp Thing is played expertly by Dick Durock. Even if he were in a supporting role, I maintain that Durock would have been one of the better performances on the show. He seems at ease with the turgid, awkwardly-lumbering scripts, and can really emote considering that he has ninety percent of his face lacquered under a banana skin. I once thought that no incarnation of Swamp Thing would live more brightly in my mind than Alan Moore’s, or prove more terrifyingly campy than Rick Veitch’s, but then Dick Durock learned how to do “sassy face” buried under a mound of peas and now I have a new favorite.
As great as he is solo, he really comes alive when interacting with Anton Arcane (Mark Lindsay Chapman). As a former soap opera actor, Chapman knew his way around a bit of kitsch. He proves repeatedly to be the one actor willing to really go for it in his performance. From sneering mastermind to gibbering genius, one of Lindsay’s most amazing qualities is his complete knowledge of his space, and how he interacts with it. That he improbably gives Arcane a sympathetic background in season two without ever becoming less evil is a genuinely laudable task. I dunno if you were expecting any jokes in this bit, but I actually really admire both Durock and Chapman, and I only made jokes about Durock because he’s wearing a kale onesie.
Some other minor characters:
Arcane is frequently assisted by a grimy local with low self-esteem, Sheriff Andrews (Mark Macauley), who craps out after one of those episodes where the whole thing is a really obvious metaphor happening in a dream. I swear, if you can’t survive at least one of those on a late-night low-budget early 1990’s cable television series, stay outta the kitchen.
Graham (Kevin Quigley) launches his service as Igor to Arcane’s Frankenstein bearing nothing more than a Jack Nicholson impression. He turns that into some good sneering, lewd contortions and one of the better-rounded characters on the cast. He’s that little fat guy to that big handsome guy in that Disney movie about Beauty and the Beast. I never saw it, but I get the power structure implied therein.
Swamp Thing is occasionally ogled by a frankly painfully slow-witted scientist named Dr.Ann Fisk (Janet Julian) who falls in love with the walking salad bar. I imagine it’s because the network execs didn’t want to have to depict a woman riding reverse cowboy on a watermelon, but she tends to turn Swamp Thing human a little ways after showing up. This hunky lunk of Alec Holland is played by Patrick Neil Quinn who looks like he was photocopied right out of an issue of Swamp Thing, and acts as well too. Julian ain’t no great shakes. Again, sorry, probably it was the thin gruel of a script, but lord is it painful to watch…
Then there's also General Sunderland, a crazy circus guy also played by the guy who played General Sunderland, and a crazy mystical agent of fate who was played by the same guy who played the crazy circus guy and General Sunderland, and also Wolfman Jack.