Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Middleman (TV)

The Middleman (2008)
Created by
Javier Grillo-Marxuach 
Starring Matt Keeslar, Natalie Morales, Brit Morgan, Mary Pat Gleason, Jake Smollett, Brendon Hines.
IMDB Entry

When people think of quality TV, ABC Family Channel does not come to mind. I see that Kyle XY  gets some buzz, but really, it is pretty much a wasteland of "family" comedies and dramas with about as much edge to them as a block of wood, the shows that are not quite good enough for their sister network, The Disney Channel.  So the last thing you'd expect from them is a delight like Middleman.

In a nutshell, the show is The Man from U.N.C.L.E. crossed with Men in Black, with a hint of The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and every comic book you ever loved.  Only funnier and more entertaining.

In the pilot,* we meet Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), an aspiring artist working as a bored receptionist at a scientific establishment. Something goes wrong and a monster is created.  Wendy is too blasé to be terrified and when the Middleman **(Matt Kesslar),  a Men-in-Black type agent, appears to defeat it, he takes note of her lack of fear and offers her a job.

The Middleman is an agent for O2STK*** and is looking for an assistant. Wendy joins him in fighting aliens and other menaces.   The office is run by Ida (Mary Pat Gleason) a large robot woman in a tacky housedress for whom sarcasm is her primary language.

Wendy's personal life conflicts with her new job, causing problems with her friend and roommate Lacey Thornfield (Brit Morgan). They are both helped by the guy next door, Noser (Jake Smollett).  Naturally, Wendy can't tell them about her top-secret middleman job (though there are hints of romantic sparks between Lacey and the Middleman), which leads to some problems with her friendship and her social life with Tyler Ford (Brendon Hines), who otherwise would be a kindred spirit.

The bare description doesn't do justice to just how entertaining the series was.  Some of the various menaces the Middleman fought included:

  • Giant venomous flying fish whose bite turns victims into zombies.
  • Mexican wrestlers.
  • Gun-toting gorillas.
  • A duck caught in a hole in space and time.
  • Evil alien overlords disguised as the members of a boy band****
  • A succubus who works as a fashion designer.
  • Aliens addicted to plastic surgery.
  • Vampire ventriloquist dummies.
  • A cursed tuba

In addition to the general silliness of plotting, there was also shout outs to adventure series and movies.

Some were obvious -- Titanic, for instance.  Others required a knowledge of popular culture, like in the final episode where Wendy was transported into an evil parallel world.  How did we know that?  Because all the men there wore goatees (and the Middleman looked a lot like Snake Plissken*****).  There was also one episode where the aliens were being investigated by an organization suspiciously similar to U.N.I.T. from Doctor Who.

Some were even more subtle, like when the Middleman introduced him and Wendy as "Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson."

Note that this wasn't just reference comedy.  If you didn't get the reference, it didn't matter -- the show was still fun.  But getting the reference made you watch very carefully. It was as though the scripts were written first and then people went through them to figure out what media references fit the script.

I also liked the fact that they knew when to hold back. The final episode involved palindromes, and a criminal who left drawings at the scene of his crimes.  The first showed a man.  The next showed a plan. The next showed a canal. And the final one  showed . . . a hat.  "A hat?" Wendy asks.  "How does that fit in?"******

Each scene had a title, a la The X-Files that told time and location. In some episodes they have fun with that, using random time zones from around the world, or using "Lunch Time," "Dinner Time," "Hammer Time," and "Jail Time."

I could go on and on about the great moments in the show. There was the time Noser played "Stump the Band" (people would shout out names of songs, and he'd say, "Yes, I know that one."). The show was just densely packed with humor and strangeness, they type of thing where you had to pay attention every moment for fear of missing something that would have you laughing out loud.

The stories worked because, despite the fact they were off-the-wall, the writers took it all seriously.  Sure, there was slapstick, but the show remained grounded just enough to sell the concept.

Much of that is due to the two leads.  Matt Kessler played the Middleman -- the straightest of straight arrows -- perfectly seriously, even in the most bizarre of situations.  The Middleman could have been like the old Adam West Batman, but Kessler was never jokey.  The Middleman believed in what he was doing, and that helped sell the show.

Natalie Morales was also good as Wendy, a comic book/TV/movie geek whose ironic look at life contrasted nicely with the Middleman's seriousness.  She was often skeptical of what was going on, only to be shown that things were even weirder than she imagined.

Ida Credit also has to be given to Mary Pat Gleason.  Her Ida was always a hoot.  Britt Morgan was nice as Lacey, the type of best friend/roommate most women would love to have.

The whole enterprise was developed as a TV series by creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach, but when that didn't work out, he turned it into a graphic novel until he was able to sell the concept to the network.  Grill-Marxuach is a master of combining story and comedy and getting writers who could see his vision through.

The show ran in the summer of 2008. As of this moment, there is no word on whether it will be back or be canceled, but it seems likely we'll see no more of the Middleman (though it made a few best of 2008 lists). Another network may have had more success for it (though, as some have pointed out, it would probably fit best if Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel merged).

Luckily, the show is available for downloading at iTunes. It's a perfect way to watch the Middleman fight evil -- so you don't have to.


*"The Pilot Episode Sanction."  All the show titles were over-the-top parodies of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. show titles.

**His real name is never revealed.

*** Organization 2 Secret to Know.  This is just the Middleman's name for the organization; it has no actual name -- because it's too secret to know, of course.

****Varsity Fanclub, to be exact.  I don't know much about them (I'm hardly the usual boy band target audience), but you have to give them credit to appear on a TV show that makes them megalomaniacal alien villains.

*****Star Trek reference, if you need an explanation.  And Snake Plissken was from the movie Escape from New York.

****** A panama hat, but of course, Wendy had never seen one and so was unable to complete the palindrome.

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