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'Swamp Thing' 1.01 Review: Pilot

James Wan's spectacular 'Swamp Thing' series gets a second chance on The CW.

A slimy green monster known as Swamp Thing looks longingly at a beautiful sultry woman
(Image: © Warner Bros. )

Our Verdict

This horror-steeped intro to the elemental plant creature will have you hooked.

For

  • 🌱The relationship between Abby and Alec is perfection.
  • 🌱Legitimately scary horror for broadcast TV.
  • 🌱Beautiful practical effects.
  • 🌱Stunning world building.
  • 🌱Great writing.
  • 🌱Characters you care about.
  • 🌱A brilliant way to get into the Halloween spirit.

Against

  • 🌱Nothing! It's a perfect pilot.

This piece contains spoilers for Swamp Thing.

You've likely heard the sad story of Swamp Thing. Canceled after just one episode on DC Universe. Lost to--depending on the version of the tale you've heard--tax credits, bad budgeting, or suits not understanding the appeal of a sexy plant monster. But you've probably never seen the series which debuted on DC Universe two years ago. That's all about to change as due to Covid-19 the series has been picked up by The CW--bless corporate synergy--to fill out their fall season schedule. I am incredibly happy about this, as the show is a total and utter delight. Most impressively, the version that debuted on the broadcast network managed to make it on with just under a minute of sex and violence edited out for the sake of its new home. 

A big problem with a lot of comic book shows is the amount of lore and legacy they have to build in due to the decades of stories about the hero they're centering. Luckily, although there are many great Swamp Thing stories, the character doesn't have such a wide fandom that the series feels indebted or dragged down by any of them. And thanks to that fact along with some great writing, the pilot gets straight into the action. Marais is a bayou town in Louisiana and things are getting strange in the waters it's built on. We open the episode with three men on a boat. It's dark and dangerous, and they're quickly set upon by rapidly crawling vines which dart, dive, and ultimately impale as if possessed. It's an impressive opening that sets the tone of the show and the wonderfully drawn first episode.

Marais is also home to Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), a CDC doctor who left the small town long ago but is drawn back by an outbreak of an unknown illness. Reed is brilliant in the role. She plays Dr. Arcane with a frenetic energy and innate kindness that make her a hero you want to root for, which is lucky as this first episode is very much Abby's. Well, and one Alec Holland (Andy Bean). If you've read the comics you'll know that Holland becomes the titular Swamp Thing and that is also his fate here. But Bean imbues him with a humanity, sweetness, and humor that gives him more depth than I expected. It helps that Reed and Bean have brilliant chemistry, making their quick connection feel real and vital. 

Here Holland is a disgraced scientist, one who keeps getting in Abby's way as she investigates the new disease. Speaking of that, Swamp Thing was made prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and that just makes the mystery of the violently scary and dangerous illness feel even scarier. That disease causes victims to bleed green, and--in one of the most horrifying moments of the episode--invades the human body with vines, leaves, and rot, destroying the host. Arcane and Bean soon team up to discover the secret of the swamp, which seems to be linked to an unknown mutagen that Holland has found while working for Marais' shady patriarch, Avery Sunderland (Will Patton). Yep, Swamp Thing is stacked with top tier character actors and Patton is terrifying as the rich, powerful, and obviously completely evil businessman. 

Alec and Abby are a dynamic and charming pair and it's frankly fun to see them facing down the ever-growing horror of Marais with confusion and a somewhat waning sense of hope. That human heart is key to what makes this pilot so effective as you care about the people the new monsters of Marais are hunting. I was truly delighted by the use of practical effects in this episode. You can tell that producer Wan, showrunner Mark Verheiden, and director Len Wiseman were able to go wild with budget and concept here. Humans are reanimated as vines and roots writhe through their bodies, huge set pieces feature the ruins of lost boats, and their practical swamp set is built on a soundstage, making the world of Swamp Thing feel tangible, scary, and real. Plus, what horror lover doesn't enjoy some good old fashioned practical effects?

The swamp isn't the only thing holding a secret, however, as Abby's reason for leaving Marais hangs like a damp moss over her return. Reed is a mess of guilt and regret that gets touched on here when Avery Sunderland's wife, Maria (Virginia Madison), confronts her about the death of her daughter, Shawna, Abby's best friend who died under mysterious circumstances years before. Madsen is a powerhouse just like always, and her ravaged, grief-stricken performance makes her empathetic even though it's clear she's unstable and there's obviously more to what happened to Shawna than we know. Her introduction is a great example of how well Verheiden crafts a script that manages to introduce the key players and conflicts without it ever feeling like a diversion from the core puzzle of what's causing the sickness. With the setup they chose it would have been easy for the team to go with the look and feel of a basic medical drama. But instead we get an engaging gothic whodunnit driven by a sweet unexpected horror-drenched meet cute which you could almost forget is essentially an origin for a magical swamp creature. 

With all of this going on I somehow found myself most moved and drawn in by a scene where Reed and Bean share Abby and Alec's dark secrets over whiskey and scientific test results. There's such a deep sense of connection that has already been built in Swamp Thing's quietest moments and it's cemented here. We learn that Holland manipulated results to prove a theory, and it seems to be the same one that brought him to Marias. Abby shares that she "killed" Shawna, though what that means we don't know. As the pair share a personal breakthrough they also have a scientific one with the results from the strange toxin bottles they found when exploring the swamp matching the disease ravaging Marais. Alec heads out to the swamp to try and find if there are more of the bottles in order to protect the town, but is brutally killed by a hooded figure who spots him out on the swamp. Even though I knew it was coming, it was a moment that still took my breath away. Bean does such a great job as Holland that you don't want him to die or to even transform, although you know it'll be his fate. His killer blows up his boat for good measure, and as Alec sinks into the waters of the swamp the vines take him. 

Of course, Abby is even more upset by the explosion that she hears than I was and heads out to look for Alec. Like pretty much everyone else we've seen in the swamp, she's waylaid by killer vines. But just as they're about to attack, they stop and we see Swamp Thing (Derek Mears in an incredible practical suit) emerge onto the banks. As a diehard fan of the comics, this is the rare kind of comic book adaptation that seems to have gotten everything right. It knows what to stick to and what to change. The creative team understands that to make a truly beautiful gothic beauty and the beast story you need to humanize the creature and give us a hero we care about. Reed's Abby is just that, and Bean lays the groundwork here for horror icon Mears to give the performance of a lifetime under that wonderfully detailed and slimy suit. If you want something horrifying, romantic, and delightfully spooky this October then you must watch Swamp Thing.