That seems to have been the thought process behind the folks at Shout Factory when they put out this box set. It’s probably what drove the folks who made this series in the first place. Sure, Swamp Thing wasn’t the most well-known superhero in the D.C. Comics stable, but Wes Craven’s campy but cool movie adaptation and its so-so sequel shined the light on this character, paving the way for other opportunities. Now, with Swamp Thing: The Series, the first 22 episodes of the USA Network series (seasons 1 and 2) get a box set treatment. It’s a completist’s treasure, but a well thought out “Best Of” set with the lesser episodes removed would have been a better crafted, more enjoyable collection.
I’m a Swampy fan, so when I started watching this set I was excited. That excitement dimmed once I got hip-deep into the first episode. These episodes are touted as “the first 22 episodes in the order they were meant to be seen!” so things should flow seamlessly. But the first five episodes are horrible, jumbled messes, bouncing from one scene to the other with little if any explanation for the gaps in continuity. For example, the first episode “The Emerald Heart” introduces us to the main protagonists in this series, Tressa and Jim Kipp (Carrell Myers and Jesse Ziegler), a mother and young son from Philadelphia who head to visit Tressa’s mother Savannah Langford at Savannah’s home in the swamps of Louisiana. Savannah dies in the next episode … or rather the story begins with Savannah’s funeral. No explanation, and in what can only be a director’s gaffe, no tears from either lead. In “Blood Wind,” Dr. Arcane, Swamp Thing’s nemesis, has a “Crown Prince” helping him out (his character doesn’t even have a name; he’s just Crown Prince) … never to be seen again.
Dick Durok plays Swamp Thing, also known as Dr. Alec Holland, a scientist who ran afoul of his nemesis’ evil intentions. Durok plays Swamp Thing well enough, but he’s not given very much to do. He sits around the swamp, usually acting as Jim’s pet, until something needs to be taken care of or The Family Kipp has gotten themselves into trouble again. Mark Lindsay Chapman plays Dr. Arcane, the Big Bad of this series, and with his hammy smarm definitely plays to the cheap seats. His Dr. Moreau-like tinkering with nature is the cause of the majority of the problems the major characters face. Meyers and Ziegler are game as the two human leads of the show, but are painted as such complete and utter Good Guys that they aren’t given much to do except get in harm’s way. Watch the half-hour episodes one after the other, though, and you can actually see Meyers develop into a stronger actress. Ziegler isn’t given much time to develop; 13 episodes in he’s replaced by his heretofore unknown teenage step-brother Will (Scott Garrison), probably to up the teen demographic. Kari Wuhrer of MTV and Friday the 13th: The Series fame (hey, that show’s famous to me) has an ongoing role as Abigail, a girl with more than good looks to her name. The series actually gains speed – and clarity – after these changes, though the camp definitely stays around for the ride.
Lest you think that I have nothing but negative things to say about this set, I should confess that a few things stood out to my pained eyes. First, the special effects were pretty damn good for such an obviously low-budget series. Swamp Thing himself is a particular standout, and that raises things a bit. Guest stars of each episode almost always put in performances much better than the starring cast. Jacob Witkin, as Simon in “Grotesquery,” particularly stands out as a sideshow hack working with Dr. Arcane in order to beef up a bargain-basement traveling circus. There are some actors who seem to be reading their lines from a cue card, but like The Love Boat and other guest-star driven shows, it’s easier to get a decent actor for a single-shot guest spot than it is to keep quality actors in a low-budget TV show – especially since movie actors in the early ’90s weren’t too keen on doing TV, so as a producer you had to get what you could. The wardrobe and hairstyles are an absolute hoot, from a retro perspective. Ahh, the good old days, when women’s shoulders were wider than men’s, and mullets were hot. Leggings, neon and an overabundance of hairspray lends a welcome campiness to a show that doesn’t seem to be able to figure out whether or not to take itself seriously. You just haven’t lived camp ’til you’ve seen Arcane’s invisible shield in “Silent Screams.” I’ve never enjoyed mime so much in my life. Well, except for that one time a bunch of drunken friends were making fun of Cirque de Soleil. The deadly, killer plant in “The Hunt” is just as hilarious. Rare orchid? More like plastic plant from the dollar store.
With so many episodes that are almost painful to watch, a few of them offer the promise of something more. “New Acquaintances,” about Jim’s attempt at making new friends, has an interesting twist at the end that puts a much needed positive spin on Jim’s solitary life. Of course, Lily’s never seen again. “Natural Enemy” pits Swampy against an evil Voodoo priest (played by the always excellent Roscoe Lee Browne, in a role not listed in his IMDb profile) giving the episode a nice touch of supernatural alongside all of the fantasy elements. “Living Image” is the series origin episode, and though it’s near the end of the first season, it should be (and originally was) much earlier in the series. Plus, it would serve as a beacon of hope for those viewers stuck watching one bad episode after another on the first two discs. Discs 3 and 4 offer more interesting stories. “Dark Side Of The Mirror” has Arcane creating a look-alike Swamp Thing in order to kill off a rival DA that threatens to bring down Arcane Industries, and the episode has a big (or bigger) budget feel to it. “Walk A Mile In My Shoots” has Arcane swap bodies with Swamp Thing, and watching Swampy as Arcane experience being human again is touching.
What would have beefed up this DVD set is a crapload of special features, but it only comes with interviews from co-creator Len Wein and actor Dick Durock. Commentary would have been a fantastic addition, and would have shed some light on how the series was viewed by those who participated in it. A history of Swamp Thing, a timeline or list of graphic novels that fans could get their hands on, character bios … This series is supposed to be a “cult favorite,” and scrolling through the rave reviews on Amazon and the fan sites seem to prove it. Yet this DVD set gives the fans little more than the shows, and that’s an opportunity wasted.
As a summer replacement series, perhaps folks were kinder to Swamp Thing: The Series, especially the earlier episodes. And maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder with the fans (goodness knows that’s happened to me; Buck Rogers, anyone?) Plus, it’s been close to 20 years since this series originally started up, and Swamp Thing may have been good stuff back in the day. Hey, I’m trying to be generous here; work with me. I can only hope that in this time of ripping off anything and everything that has gone before, that someone gives Swampy the movie or series (HBO, are you listening?) he so richly deserves. Right now, Swamp Thing: The Series makes for a fun retro/camp night at home, but only hints at what could have been.
(Shout Factory, 2008)