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SWAMP THING Is a Body Horror Mystery of the Highest Order (Review)

DC has dominated the televised comic book landscape for several years. Their CW “Arrowverse” has become an institution. Gotham on Fox lasted longer than anyone expected. And Krypton has gotten a lot of good buzz for Syfy. With their own DC Universe service, they’ve already given the world the grim Titans and had their best showing yet with Doom Patrol. But the thing about each of these series is that they’re very much superhero-centric. With DC Universe‘s next offering, Swamp Thing, they’ve got a bonafide horror-mystery series without a cape in sight, and it’s all the better for it.

Swamp Thing began in the ’70s as a monster-tragedy comic by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson. It was a major hit for DC right away, but when writer Alan Moore and artist Stephen Bissette eventually took over, The Saga of the Swamp Thing perfected a brand of Southern Gothic mysticism that people still treat with reverence. For this new TV series, developers Mark Verheiden and Gary Dauberman weave in the best of the Wein/Wrightson run and the best of Moore/Bissette’s series into a modern setting. I’ve seen the first two episodes of the series, which will debut May 31 on DC Universe. So far it’s a brilliant, slowly unraveling mixture of science and the paranormal, all set in a little town full of secrets.

The pilot, directed by Len Wiseman, introduces us to Marais, Louisiana, an isolated bayou town with a long history and very powerful, old-money families. People in the town contract a strange illness, quickly reaching epidemic proportions, and the CDC is dispatched to get answers. Leading that team is Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed, the show’s MVP), a young doctor who was born and raised in Marais but who hasn’t gone back for years; the first two episodes only barely touch on the reason for her long absence. She soon meets scientist Alec Holland (Andy Bean), an outsider hired to do research on the swamp. His employer, the wealthy developer Avery Sunderland (Will Patton), fired Alec when he asked too many questions, but Alec refuses to leave. Eventually he and Abby team up to stop the pathogen.

That’s only just scratching the surface of the story. The pathogen does something to the plant life in the swamp, making it grow erratically and at an alarming rate. The pilot’s scariest scene finds Abby and Alec in a morgue with a dead man’s body. The plants inside his lungs grow and split his body apart, very reminiscent of the defibrillator scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s a theme in the show of not messing with forces you don’t understand, be they scientific, biological, or indeed mystical. We get the hint here and there of otherworldly forces at work in Marais separate from the genetically altered swamp.

And that’s truly where the show shines. We’re very much following Abby Arcane’s journey. She’s the one who to sort out what’s going on in the town, while facing her past. At the center of her own struggle is Maria Sunderland (Virginia Madsen), Avery’s wife. Described as the show’s Lady Macbeth, Maria has deep-seated hatred for Abby for reasons made clear as the season unfolds. Maria is only “allowing” Abby to stay in Marais until the epidemic is under control. And if any more people die, Maria will hold Abby personally responsible. All at once, with Virginia Madsen’s sole scene in the pilot, we get hints of a huge backstory for our characters and this town.

You’ll notice I haven’t yet mentioned the titular Thing from the titular Swamp. The giant marshman (Derek Mears) hardly features in the first two episodes. I actually think this is one of the smartest things the show can do. Instead, Verheiden and Dauberman focus on Abby and the strange happenings in Marais. We get wrapped up in the mystery of it all, the growing threat of the plague and the conspiracy it suggests. And then we see Swamp Thing, in fleeting bits. Surely he’ll be a bigger part of the narrative going forward, but he’s a piece of a larger story. There are a few choice moments, mainly in the second episode, where Swampy gets to shine, but above all, this is not a superhero show.

From what I’ve seen so far, Swamp Thing isn’t merely the best show on a very boutique streaming service; it’s one of the best new horror series to come around in years. It doesn’t hit you over the head and its gore and scares come as part of a crescendo of tension. It’s taking its time to show us the characters and the predicament they’re in before unleashing Swamp Thing himself. That takes a massive amount of restraint. It’s clear there’s a desire to create a show for genre fans everywhere, not just die-hard comic book fans.

Swamp Thing is well worth the DC Universe subscription. I can’t wait to check out the next eight episodes to see how deep the swamp goes.

Images: DC Universe

Kyle Anderson is the Editor at Large for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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