Canned TV Show #5: The Middleman
Hello legion of followers, sorry for my lateness in posting once again, I was forced to take some time off when my wicked oppressors (or rather professors) decided to pile on the work and distract me from my civic duties. I also took some time over my Thanksgiving weekend to watch my dad’s copy of Firefly: The Complete Series. Expect a post on that shortly; I still have to watch a few episodes. In any case, I’m back in full swing, and with a great show to talk about, one that I believe will make its way to a cult status of its own, amassing a legion of followers not quite the size of mine, but still large, demanding its return in some form. I am of course talking about The Middleman, a smart, quirky, endlessly watchable nugget of sci-fi comedy goodness brought to you by, oddly enough, ABC Family.
You wouldn’t expect a clever homage/spoof of 60s spy-fi and “monster of the week” specials to be broadcast on the same network that brings the world The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but sure enough, there it was. And after watching it, it certainly seems a tad on the “too smart for the room” side, and an odd fit for such a wholesome and, well, bland network like ABC Family. In fact, some of the humor on the show is downright inappropriate for young children who watch Secret Life and think that’s what high school’s really like. The show’s constant barrage of pop culture references and general quirkiness would feel more at home on Syfy or something like that. But alas, ABC Family bought the property, and ABC Family is where the show was made.
So where did this show come from, you might ask? The brainchild of TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, The Middleman was initially planned as a tribute and send up of the aforementioned “monster of the week” genre, and was written to be a TV series. On its way, it ended up becoming a comic book, and story arcs were published as mini series and then collected in anthologies. Eventually, Grillo-Marxuach turned it back into a TV script, and managed to sell it to ABC Family, adapting certain plotlines from the comic into whole episodes, and some that were completely new. It was an odd path for a show to take from conception to birth, but let me tell you, it was worth it.
So what’s the plot, you might ask? You ask a lot of questions, you know that? Well anyway, the plot concerns Wendy Watson (played by babeorino Natalie Morales), a snarky artist type who is attacked by some sort of crazy monster at one of her many short-lived temp jobs, and is rescued by a mysterious figure in a green Eisenhower jacket who calls himself The Middleman (played by hunkorino Matt Keeslar). Later, at her “illegal sublet she shares with another young, photogenic artist” named Lacey (Brit Morgan, also quite lovely), she gets a call from a mysterious temp agency with the comically suspicious name Jolly Fats Weehaukin, only to find out it’s a cover for The Middleman’s super secret crime fighting organization. There, she becomes The Middleman’s sidekick, who along with the help of sassy android assistant Ida (the not so babeorino but very funny Mary Pat Gleason), fight comic book style evil and save humanity. It’s a fun premise from the get-go, and the show has fun with it, putting its characters in all sorts of ridiculous situations.
Here’s a quick clip of an ad for the show featuring The Middleman giving some helpful advice:
But a fun premise wouldn’t be enough if it weren’t for how much else the show has to offer. Morales and Keeslar are both great, and share a chemistry that keeps evolving and getting more interesting. Gleason is hilarious as the cranky Ida, who always has some snappy comeback and frequently banters with Wendy, calling her a pothead at practically every turn. The supporting characters are great as well, and the show seems to have a really strong desire to develop them and make them interesting. Wendy, of course, gets the most development, but The Middleman and Lacey both get a fair amount themselves, including a turbulent romance between them. Even Noser, a friend of Wendy and Lacey who sits outside holding a guitar and quoting song lyrics, is more than just a one-note character, especially in the second half of the series where he leaves the building and gets more to do. It’s kind of a funny running joke that we never see him do the stuff he’s supposedly good at, like knowing every possible song to play in “stump the band” or being an ace ventriloquist. Wendy eventually gets an almost too perfect boyfriend named Tyler Ford (played by Brendan Hines), with whom she shares plenty of witty exchanges. Also, Kevin Sorbo of Hercules fame shows up as a middleman from the sixties, awoken from cryogenic slumber, and he’s pretty gosh darn funny in it. Kind of makes me wish he still had a career.
Another important part of what makes The Middleman so enjoyable are the little details each episode contains, making the whole series feel very lovingly and carefully crafted. There’s sly pop culture gags, intentionally cheesy effects, and all sorts of phrases repeated like mantras. For example, every villain believes their plan is “sheer elegance in its simplicity,” the fictional restaurant The Booty Chest is almost always referred to as “the pirate-themed sports bar with the scantily clad waitresses,” or Lacey calling The Middleman “sexy boss man” or “pillow lips.” The show also has some fun with meta-humor throughout each episode. Wendy asks of a conveniently crawlable vent system: “were these designed by TV writers or something?” and the omnipresent subtitles that state the time and setting often display something humorous (a personal favorite of the setting/time displays: “the underworld–time has no meaning or relevance”). Overall, it seems like a lot of careful crafting went into the show, and that the creators really loved the things they were spoofing. It’s entertaining, quirky fare you just don’t find on TV very often anymore.
If it’s so great, why did it get cancelled, you might ask? Seriously, what’s with the questions? You freak me out. If I had to guess, I’d have to say, as usual, ratings did it in. While the show developed a devoted fan base, it was still a small one, and their love and support wasn’t enough to keep it on the air. ABC Family cut down the season from thirteen episodes to twelve, and took some funds from the unfilmed final episode and put it towards making the twelfth, a fun story involving a dystopian parallel universe, even bigger budget (the episodes didn’t have a very big budget to begin with, which is all well and good considering the show is kind of supposed to be lovingly low budget). A comic book was later released, based off the plot of the final episode, to kind of wrap up the series and reveal some important facts. The cast and creators also came to Comic Con this year to do a table read of the script for the final episode, which is probably as close to seeing it filmed as we’ll ever get. You can watch the reading on youtube (the real-life equivalent of the show’s own version, My Face in a Tube, presumably a combination of Myspace, Facebook, and Youtube) in seven parts if you so choose; it would’ve been fun to see in episode form, that’s for gosh darn sure.
To close out, here’s a funny compilation of some of The Middleman’s colorful yet mostly G-rated sayings (he is an overgrown boy scout, after all):
So, should it be back on the air? you bet your sweet patootie. While I wouldn’t call it the heaviest show ever made, it was consistently entertaining and winningly quirky. Plus, any time I can gaze at Morales’ hotness is a plus for me. Grillo-Marxuach said he still hasn’t given up hope for the future of the series, and hopes that DVD sales will be strong enough to warrant some kind of return. So I urge all of you to watch it, and buy the DVD set if you like the show. You won’t be disappointed, and if you are, well, clearly you’re no follower of mine. You can watch it all on various websites including megavideo (though they’re lame and make you pay after you watch a certain amount of stuff, unless you wait a while to watch more. It’s a tricky system).
Come back next time when I’ll be looking at the Holy Grail of cancelled TV shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly! Does it live up to the massive hype? Find out next time.