There’s always something a bit tragic about a show cut down before it had a chance to improve itself, the potential of the premise left unrealized. The case of Swamp Thing‘s swift, unexpected cancellation after airing the first episode and that the season would be shortened to ten episodes instead of thirteen feels especially brutal. There’s no clear reason behind the decision, perhaps some behind-the-scenes shenanigans that will never be made known, but judging from the episodes it seems like a case of overkill for a series that easily could have found its stride in time.
The series picks up with Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) dispatched from the CDC to stem a bizarre form of flu coming from the swamps around the small Louisiana town of Marais. There, she meets up with researcher Alec Holland (Andy Bean) who has some insights into the outbreak before being murdered in a plot involving shady businessman and town patriarch Avery Sunderland (Will Patton) who also happens to be Abby’s stepfather.
Holland later emerges from the mysterious swamp transformed into the hulking Swamp Thing (Derek Mears), a man-plant hybrid with powers he has yet to truly understand and holding tenuously onto the life he had before. Throughout the rest of the series, Abby and Swamp Thing work together to combat the virus, corporate cronies, a mad scientist, and the more supernatural elements haunting the swamplands.
With all that, it would have been easy for the series to follow in its forebearer’s B-movie footsteps, but Swamp Thing aims to be serious and invokes a horror movie vibe that makes it distinct from the DC Universe’s other offerings. Monstrous vines work their tendrils into bodies like Lovecraftian beings and Swamp Thing, his eyes glowing red under his moss-covered visage, as he broods in the mist-covered swamp, evokes the right kind of moodiness and horror that should be the driving force of the season.
The supernatural elements, body horror, and existential angst of the titular character are often eschewed in favor of character-driven melodrama. Marais, being Abby’s hometown, means there’s a lot of old acquaintances and tragic backstories that are dredged up and personal revelations play more of an important role in the development of the story while Swamp Thing’s macabre world-building goes unattended. In many ways, it feels like a CW show with some more horror elements thrown in.
It’s not as if there isn’t plenty to work with inside Swampy’s complicated lore, most notably the establishment of The Green which would require far more time to expand on than a ten-episode limit would allow. Imagine a plant-based version of The Force that binds the world together and you get a basic idea. Suffice to say there’s plenty of unanswered questions that could have been explained in a second season that may never come, there are so many mystical elements at play it’s hard to keep straight what’s what by the end of the season.
Veteran stuntman Derek Mears looks amazing in the Swamp Thing costume and admirably brings enough humanity to the role to ground the character. Though the season focuses on the characters surrounding Swamp Thing, it would have been nice to see more of him throughout his own series. The core elements of the character are brushed upon, we get to see hints of Swamp Thing the eco-warrior, misunderstood monster, and potential romantic interest but by and large, everything revolves around Abby and her relationships with everyone in town. It’s as if no one had any real faith that Swamp Thing was an interesting enough of a draw on his own.
The melodrama is acted well enough, at least. Reed’s Abby is enough of an everywoman with the pathos of someone that has a skeleton in their closet to be relatable. Will Patton plays the slimy, backstabbing Avery Sunderland with gusto and is one of the few actors to be game enough to try a full-on Louisianan accent while Kevin Durand plays Dr. Jason Woodrue, the other baddie in the series, with an intensity that sometimes threatens to turn into campiness before Durand reels it in. There’s plenty of potential villains and supporting characters to keep up with and their various connections to each other, one can only imagine the complex web of relationships that could have further complicated matters if the series hadn’t been canceled.
Swamp Thing‘s first and last season was an ambitious project with too many competing angles: body horror, a small-town melodrama, existential brooding, and a Beauty and the Beast-style romance that always seemed set on a low boil. Most series rarely come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and in time the various pieces could have been reworked to better fit together. Alas, Swamp Thing will never have the chance to grow into what it could have been, although its heart was in the right place and it tried to do right by its source material, it never gels together the way it should despite having strong horror elements. Swamp Thing, we hardly knew ye.