Feb 17 2012 12:00pm

Their tofu scramble is a poem: The Middleman

Full disclosure: This is only kinda-sorta a rewatch. I had never heard of The Middleman (or the graphic novel that spawned it) before my intro to the rewatch-in-one series. The name came up so many times in the comments that I just had to check it out. So I watched it for the first time. But then I watched them all again right after so I guess it is a rewatch after all.

The Middleman aired on ABC Family in 2008. Read that sentence carefully and you’ll already know what went wrong.

The show felt like the impossible lovechild of Men In Black and Pushing Daisies, pairing absurd sci-fi and fantasy adventure with rapid-fire smartass dialogue. And it lasted almost one season. So, yeah, that’s an imperial ton of funtimes in a short span, accompanied by that long-lasting, familiar aftertaste of hating every moron who ever worked for the network that dropped the series. Things like this make battle-scarred Browncoats shake their fist at the heavens and cry out,  “我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都!” or words to that effect.

Refresher Course: Extraordinary aplomb in the face of gargantuan weirdness earned abstract expressionist painter and semi-professional temp Wendy “Dub-Dub” “Dubby” Watson (Natalie Morales) a job with the Jolly Fats Wehawken Employment Agency. The agency is the front for the Middleman (Matt Keeslar), a clean and charming do-gooder of particularly good good-doing. Together they fight aliens and demons and augmented gorillas and luchadores and vampire puppets and stuff like that. There’s a superhero and sidekick or master and apprentice feeling to MM and Dubby, but she’s competent, resourceful and clever, so it’s not like she’s treated as an inferior or a servant. In fact, she’s hired to be the Middleman’s replacement if he should die.

Wendy shares her illegal sublet with a photogenic artist Lacey (Brit Morgan, who went on to play a white trash werewolf in True Blood) and Noser, a musician who never seems to actually play music. Now that I think of it, maybe he just lives in the hallway. Lacey is more than a little fond of MM (AKA Sexy Boss Man and Pillow Lips). Another notable supporting character is Ida, a trash-talking android (Mary Pat Gleason, one of those actors who has been in so many shows it’s hard to know where you’ve seen them before).

In many ways, the star of the show, the real star, isn’t Morales or Keeslar but Javier Grillo-Marxuach, series creator and writer. He and the team of writers created the kooky scenarios and high-octane dialogue, and these are what make The Middleman so much fun. And no series other than Spaced ever packed in so many choice nerd references. The J.R. “Bob” Dobbs International Airport. Schlermie Beckerman Memorial Square and Alfred Necessiter Memorial Hospital. And those are just from one episode. Every episode is chock full o’ references.

My only criticism of the show is that sometimes the actors (Morales most of all) don’t always give their lines authenticity. Some of it comes out as a recitation more than an organic thought. Stylized and surreal as the show is, most of the time this slight disconnect from natural speech is not a big problem. But there are moments when it throws me out of the narrative.

Of all the actors on The Middleman, I think Brit Morgan is consistently the strongest, which is interesting considering that she’s not always given a whole lot to work with. Morales is good, except in the situations I just mentioned. Oh, and I really like it when she speaks Spanish. A lot. Keeslar gives consistently reliable performances and good comic timing but, in general, his scenes don’t require a lot of emotional fluidity. Gleason is a bigger hoot than Jughead comics, always.

The Best and the Worst: Every episode has great elements, so choosing a best and worst isn’t easy. In fact, my best and worst have a lot in common, structurally. But, ultimately, for the best I go with “The Cursed Tuba Contingency.” First reason, it’s a mix of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Titanic, and it’s about a cursed tuba. Not a violin with blood in the resin. Not a guitar given by the devil at the crossroads. A tuba. It belonged to a musician on the Titanic, and granted its owner eternal life. Of sorts. If anything happens to the tuba then, Corsican Brothers style, it transfers to the owner. And all who hear it played will drown in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Meaning no mater where they are, the icy waters of the North Atlantic fill their lungs.

All that is great, but the episode also gives us a glimpse at the relationship between MM and Lacey. They go on dates, sort of, to an empty theater playing a western (a clever metaphor for MM’s personality, I think) and the stoic and clean cut MM interacts with charm and sweetness with the utterly smitten Lacey. Earlier in the series, Lacey seems like a flake, and MM seems solid. But in this episode it’s clear that she’s direct and brave while MM can be shy and evasive. And toward the end they dance on a cruise ship, and, I don’t know about you, but I thought their interaction while dancing was fantastic and surprisingly heartfelt. This is where my opinion of Brit Morgan as an actor went way up. She gave this goofy episode of a goofy show a really beautiful, sad and romantic moment.

Now for the worst (which ain’t all that bad, really): “The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation.” Substitute a cursed tuba for a ventriloquist dummy with the soul of Vlad the Impaler. Add great risk of public peril. Part of the reason this wasn’t all that strong an episode is that it shows the potential for formulaic writing in The Middleman. Since it was short lived, you can’t really identify clear storytelling patterns the way you can with, say, House M.D. But between the zombie/fish, curse/tuba, vampire/puppet you see the possible beginning of predictable storytelling. A Franken-spoon, perhaps. A werewolf chicken. And so on.

The other thing I didn’t much care for in this episode is Lacey’s weird reboundish interest in her ass-hat son of a landlord, Pip. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and I just wanted her to be with MM, gosh darn it all to heck! MM and Lacey do kiss each other, though, while hypnotized. So that’s kinda nice. Kinda.

 Aside: What happens if a werewolf bites a chicken, anyhow? Does it become a chicken wolf? Does it become a person-wolf-chicken? I suspect it becomes Bobby Flay.

What happened?: Why did a show this thoroughly fun and goofy and fan-friendly get canned? As I hinted at in the beginning, I blame ABC Family. This could not possibly have been a more nonsensical pairing. Had The Middleman aired on regular ABC, or the other major networks, it could have been fine. It could have reached its audience. But it really did not belong on ABC Family, a channel that, for those not familiar with it, has a long, strange history of overly sanitized crap shows with no more sharp wit than a buttered knuckle. This channel began as a project of televangelist Pat Robertson, then got sold, and sold and sold again, each new owner distancing the network from the evangelical source but never quite figuring itself out. Since 2006, Disney has owned ABC Family and there’s simply no way that viewers who are really into the Jonas Brothers would have ever gotten behind a show that name-drops Astro City or references Esquivel. Anyone who thinks that would work is crazy. Japanese game show crazy.

Aside: I love Astro City. And Esquivel.

And so, friends, I thank all of you who recommended this show, even though it ends with numerous painfully unanswered questions and a whole lot of unrealized potential. The Middle Man may be one more example of the tragically nifty show versus network execs (may the bad ones drown in the icy waters of the North Atlantic), but at least it was out there, fighting the good fight, for darn near a season.

Jason Henninger is a good guy because his plans are never sheer elegance in their simplicity. 

1. AO
"I had never heard of The Middleman (or the graphic novel that spawned it)"

My understanding is that it was originally a comic book mini-series, which was followed by a second comic mini-series, and that those were later collecxted, after their original releases, into "graphic novels" also called "trade paperbacks".
2. Rancho Unicorno
We tried to watch MM about six months ago and gave up somewhere on the second disk. While the first few episodes are fun and quirky, pretty soon the show begins to feel, as you point out the potential, formulaic. And fun dialogue just can't save a boring plot.

It sounds like it got better, but alas, it was too late for us.
3. EllenC
I cannot say enough about my love for this show. I loved the comic. I loved the characters. I loved the scene where Wendy's boyfriend dumped her for a film school project, and the conversations Wendy and Lacey had about their mothers. I loved Wendy's efforts to balance her paycheck-earning activities with her artistic ambitions. I loved Ida and OTSTK and the HADAR and the scene where Wendy and Travis went on a date to the WWII themed pancake restaurant, and the other scene about the power of traffic cones. I have some pretty sturdy affection for the Dr Who crossover story Javi wrote for Christmas.

ABC Family was absolutely the wrong place for it, and its demise was a sad and dark time in my life.
Jenny Thrash
4. Sihaya
I remember reading the Middleblog to see if the show would get picked up from its permanent hiatus. My impression was that the writers didn't blame ABC Family at all, mostly because nobody else had been willing to pick up the project. It's hard to be mad at ABC Family for only buying one season when the other option was having every other network on the planet buy a grand total of zero seasons. ABC had, as you point out, recently bought the network, and they loved the publicity that came with the critical acclaim.

But I think two factors really killed MM in the end. One was "Kyle XY," another quirky, sci fi ABC Family series. I seem to remember that it followed the same vector on the whole ratings vs. acclaim graph. The network gave it a chance at a second season and it entirely bellyflopped. The second MM destroying factor was "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Bleargh. It was an episodic version of an ABC after school special. It also came on the air just about the same time that MM's fate was being considered. The ratings went through the roof and put ABC Family in a lucrative niche. From then on, the channel was frat this, teenage that, angsty whaaaaaaaaah. And if ABC Family wasn't rich, it was at least profitable. "American Teenager" did for ABC Family what wrestling did for SyFy.
Jenny Thrash
5. Sihaya
PS - Yes, there is a Middleblog on LiveJournal, written by Javier Grillo-Marchuax. It is updated infrequently, but last holiday he posted a Middleman/Doctor Who crossover.

You're welcome.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
You had me at "The show felt like the impossible lovechild of Men In Black and Pushing Daisies..."
Risha Jorgensen
8. RishaBree
Damn, did I remember to ask for a Pushing Daises rewatch in your original post? Because if I didn't, you really, really, really, really, really need to include it.

Back on topic, I've heard of Middleman but never watched it. I'm going to go fix that now.

(Oh, and you're completely right about Bobby Flay. His cold, dead eyes freak me out.)
Jason Henninger
9. jasonhenninger
I don't read Chinese myself, but that is supposedly something Wash says in Firefly. According to some sites it means "Mother of god and all her wacky nephews." I'm sure that's a very colorful (read:innacurate) interpritation, but it cracks me up anyhow.

I love Pushing Daisies. At one point, very early on, was reviewing the series episode by episode. But I think it's so good that it's ok to review more than once. As such, I'll cover it here as well.
Jason Henninger
10. jasonhenninger

I checked with a Chinese coworker and she agrees with your reading of it, and adds that it's a strange, melodramatic and incomplete sentence.
11. mndrew
Loved the graphic novels, loved the show, greatly appreciate the article. A must see also for fans is the table-read of the never produced final episode from comic-con '09.
But why no mention of the great Mark Sheppard? Surely this is a milestone in his carreer course towards being the ultimate evil guest-star?
Jack Flynn
12. JackofMidworld
So much fun, cut down so early in its life...sigh...but this made my day :) Keep on rewatching!
john mullen
13. johntheirishmongol
I enjoyed Middleman, but found it a bit frothy. I wouldn't have thought it worth the effort of a recap. Maybe if it had run a few more seasons
Steve Taylor
14. teapot7
I read about Middleman on a previous Tor thread, got very excited indeed and went and tracked down a few episodes. Unfortunately I just couldn't engage with it - it seemed to be all setup and no follow through.

What do I even mean by that? It's hard to say, but I felt the show's comic background (and I love comics - not a criticism) was showing through and it manifested itself as lots of quick little sound bitey incidents, cool, but disconnected and ill thought out. Perhaps what I mean is that more attention was being paid to the concept of the show than to making each episode hang together as a dramatic/comic piece.

Even now, reading the episode descriptions above, I get excited and think they sound delightful - I wish I'd felt that way in practice.

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