While superheroes are often regarded as their own genre, it can be a big umbrella, with a lot of subdivisions. So far, DC Universe has given us gritty teen angst with Titans, and absurdist action/comedy with Doom Patrol. Swamp Thing, their third live action show, seems more like horror with some mysticism, based on a few supporting characters we see. As seems to be the default now, the premier episode is unimaginatively titled “Pilot.”
The show opens with a dark, moody scene. Three men are in a small boat in the swamps. Two of them look like they belong there, stereotypical white swamp guys. The third is a young black man with some gadgets who looks, and acts, totally out of place. They are following signals to drop cases of something or other in designated spots. In one area, things go badly as the men are stalked by shadowy movements and their boat gets lifted completely out of the water. Probably not a gator, that. To his credit, the out of place kid did try and help out his fellow passengers.
Forty-eight hours later (at least it’s not another jump back and work forward), a grade school class gets interrupted when young Suzy gets a very unusual nosebleed and then passes out. Elsewhere, in the Congo, we meet one of our main characters, Dr. Abby Arcane. Her first scene establishes her as brave, compassionate, and willing to bend the CDC rules to get her job done. After rescuing some kids, she and her coworker Harlan get a summons for an issue in Marais, Louisiana, where the opening scenes happened and where Abby is apparently from.
Harlan is not impressed with Abby’s hometown as they drive down the streets. She gives him directions, and he’s impressed she remembers since it’s been a long time since she was here. Passing a roadside memorial that triggers some memories for Abby, they get to the hospital to start learning how bad things are. There are, so far, four victims including little Suzy who we saw earlier. The disease, whatever it is, is, of course, strange and unknown and baffling everyone. They are greeted by Dr. Chowodury (Tim Russ, best known as Tovok on Star Trek: Voyager), and given a briefing. At least one trope is avoided as the hospital staff seems relieved CDC is on scene and does whatever they can to help. Abby takes charge, issues a few simple precaution orders I’d like to think the staff were doing already, and examines Suzy, finding some strange plant matter on the young girl’s pillow. Avoiding another trope, Abby doesn’t just go, “Oh, that’s weird,” and ignore it, but has it collected and tested.
Abby also finds Alec Holland (the second major name Swamp Thing fans will recognize) poking around some files. He’s clearly unusual, and very interested in some of the test results. The nurses aren’t fond of him, and tell him he needs to leave and isn’t supposed to be there in the first place. He goes before security shows up, but tells Abby she’ll need to talk to him and the answers aren’t in CDC protocols or records. Harlan and Abby compare notes and get some background on little Suzy (I guess the other patients aren’t cute white kids so we never get names for them).
Finally giving in to multiple tropes, Abby goes to play investigator by herself at Suzy’s place. Her father is missing, a local ne’er-do-well named Eddie Coyle. I don’t know if the name is a coincidence or a nod to the classic noir mystery. At the Coyle shack, she meets up with Matt, an old friend now sheriff’s deputy (or cop, depending. The dialogue and the uniform/cruiser don’t match up). They search the place, and do eventually find Coyle… sort of. There’s a lot of creepy tension building before they find Alec Holland again, taking samples and pointing out that they’re missing something. After he points it out, Abby and Matt make a disturbing discovery. Holland was right earlier, this isn’t covered in CDC manuals.
Abby and Alec talk, and he manages the rare trick of knowing more than she does but not being overly obnoxious about it. They talk background and qualifications, and he mentions he was hired by the Sutherlands, a name that seems to have local importance and personal significance to Abby. There’s a lot of banter about tv mystery shows, preferences for solutions, and some strange discoveries Alec has been making. They go out in yet another boat (Marias seems lacking in roads, generally) and get to Alec’s lab, meeting his dog, Garou. Alec talks to her about mutagens, strange DNA, and some unusual findings in the swamps he’s been encountering. Not being a run of the mill conspiracy nut, he does have some proof, and gives her a small demonstration that proves something unusual is certainly happening. They agree to work together, she gets called back to the hospital, and Alec says he’ll try and meet her, but they might not let him in. How they are going separately when they came in the same boat, I’m not sure.
With something strange going on in a small town, it’s time for the panicky town hall meeting, complete with upset locals, high tension, and a mayor who doesn’t quite have a handle on things. In this case Mayor Riley happily turns over control to Avery Sunderland, local rich and powerful man, who of course manages to calm everyone with a good speech and some good ol’ boy charm, including a reference to his late daughter. After the meeting, Sunderland talks to Holland, and we see the two don’t agree on a lot of things. Holland is worried about what he’s finding, but Sunderland seems more concerned with keeping things quiet and calm. I guess we found this show’s version of the mayor of Amity in Jaws.
At the hospital, Abby violates both basic safety protocols and her own rules from earlier and goes to work on the body they recovered. Holland shows up, with a similar lack of concern for personal safety, and they banter about sleeping and autopsies, real and alien. Holland sets up his own testing gear while Abby gets a sample, and they both wait and watch to see what happens. This conveniently takes their eyes off the body, so when bad stuff starts happening, they miss it initially. Upstairs, Suzy is also apparently part of whatever weird link exists, and starts getting out of bed to come see what’s happening. As the weirdness gets worse and looks threatening, I’ll give Holland points for getting between Abby and the out of control whatever it is. The man has guts. Suzy arrives and has a bad reaction to what she sees, so our heroes split up. Abby goes after Suzy and gets her safe, administering medical care as she can, while Holland pulls a MacGyver and stops the weirdness before it can spread too far.
In the aftermath, there are fire crews, but oddly no response from the police/sheriff’s office or even hospital security. Alec and Abby catch their breaths, and we can see some more chemistry between them. Abby gets a call and Alec makes a joke about what he’d want in order to go with her, and then finds out he was on the mark after all. Once again hopping into a boat, they end up at a bar out in the swamps, because what could go wrong with drunk boaters making their way home every night? Abby implies it’s the only place in town, and goes to find an old friend who works for the local newspaper. There’s a passing reference to and sighting of Madame Xanadu, a well-known character from the mystic corners of the DC Universe, although this is a very different version of her. They find the reporter, who offers some strange tales of missing people and weird nighttime activity in the swamp. Abby’s conversation gets interrupted when Maria Sunderland shows up, far from happy to see Abby. There’s a lot of conversation and hints at backstory, none of which sounds good. By the end of the conversation, Abby is crying and eager to leave.
Following up on the clue they got, they proceed to a specific cove, and find the aftermath of the opening scene. They amp up the drama with a thunderstorm as our heroes find the boat after the attack, and recover some samples and some of the electronics. Making their way back to Alec’s lab and waiting for more test results, Abby tells Alec about her past, or enough to sound dramatic, explain Mrs. Sunderland’s dislike, and cover why Abby doesn’t get back here much. More tv mystery show banter to one side, we learn that Alec has some skeletons in his closet as well. There’s a reason an apparently brilliant and skilled researcher is working by himself in a small swamp town. Their discussion gets put on hold when they get some disturbing results from Alec’s machines.
He takes off to go round up more evidence, and finds a lot more than he bargained for. If you know Swamp Thing’s origin, you have a rough idea about what comes next, and it’s not good for Alec. What follows isn’t subtle, and gets Abby’s attention. She goes to see what’s going on, and makes her own series of shocking finds in Southern Gothic style. Abby is understandably freaked out about what she finds, and the episode ends with her in uncertain circumstances at best.
What I liked: The banter with Abby and Alec worked. Actually, Crystal Reed, who played Abby, did well throughout. They set up the elements of the ongoing oddness/Alec’s origin nicely. The effects they used were good, evoking eeriness and creepy events without any in your face, “This will make them jump” scenes. Maria Sunderland (Virginia Madsen) was believably bitter and fierce. It was interesting that they name-dropped Xanadu; I’m not sure what to make of her yet.
What I didn’t: I get the idea that pretty actor face time overrules common sense at times, but it was still jarring to see these alleged professionals not taking routine precautions. There seemed to be a few extra boats at some locations that didn’t quite make sense to me. The aftermath of the big hospital scene wasn’t handled well.
Overall, I liked it. I’m certainly engaged enough to keep watching. I’ll give this a solid 3.5 out of 5.