Sometimes, you find great stuff in unexpected places. Junk stores, flea markets, political speeches. That is what my experience of finding The Middleman was like.
The Middleman (based on the graphic novels by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine) is a somewhat obscure genre show that has just ended its first twelve-episode season—airing on ABC Family, of all places, but don’t let that scare you off: this show is funny.
And if you are here, reading Tor.com, I can pretty much guarantee that it is written directly at you.
Imagine a world in which a young, photogenic visual artist named Wendy (“DubDub”) Watson (Natalie Morales) finds herself recruited via a temp agency by a mysterious superhero—The Middleman (Matt Keeslar)—as his sidekick. Needless to say, she excels at the job, and (to make a long story spoiler-free) wackiness ensues.
I feel the need to insert a disclaimer here: those who know my proclivities may be surprised that I like this show as much as I do. Because this is fluff, absolutely—but it’s well-written, well-crafted, entertaining, slick fluff with a heart of gold.
The Middleman is not noir, it’s not deep, and frankly—while we do get some character development and pathos later on in the first season—there’s just not a lot of there there. Because there just doesn’t need to be.
So that’s what it doesn’t have. What it does have is intentionally ludicrous sendups of genre conventions, scintillating dialogue, enough random popular references to make me want a Pop-Up Videos style explication when the DVDs finally come around, and an intensely likable cast of wacky regulars, including Ida (the foulmouthed, ill-tempered android played by Mary Pat Gleason), guitar-cuddling squatter Noser (Jake Smollett), and DubDub’s confrontational vegan animal-rights junkie roomie Lacey Thornfield (Brit Morgan).
Also, I love the fact that the protagonist is sort of incidentally Latina. She’s there, she’s bilingual, she’s culturally fluent in a variety of situations—and it’s an organic part of the character’s makeup. But this is a show about a sidekick and her life, not an attempt to exploit the character’s ethnic background. Well done.
Of the show’s big style points, two work best for me. The first of those is that dialogue. It’s sharp, rapid-fire, stylized, and relentless, making absolutely no attempt to sound like real people talking. It’s totally aware of its own metatext: these characters know they’re in a superhero story, and they know how superhero stories go. Viewers will be reminded of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Tick (old farts may recollect Kelly and Scotty in I Spy) although The Middleman has a couple of gimmicks all its own—like the infodump paragraph repeated rapid-fire by several characters until it becomes as funny as an Eddie Izzard refrain.
The second really effective schtick is the constant barrage of pop culture. Not a single sentence or establishing shot goes by without a line or two that will make the well-educated geek snicker. There’s a running gag, for example, in which DubDub and The Middleman introduce themselves at crime scenes as fictional characters (speaking of I Spy, these range from Dr. Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson to Dr. Emmett Brown). There are shoutouts in one single episode from everything from Gorilla Grodd and Planet of the Apes to Al Pacino. There’s an Escape From New York parody complete with Matt Kesslar in Snake Pliskin getup, with eyepatch. (Did I mention there’s also eye candy? Hello.) There’s an episode that revolves around the hunt for a vampire puppet, complete with Buffy jokes. There’s time-and-date stamps in the style of Law And Order, except completely cracked—and they get more and more cracked as the season goes on. There’s direct quotes from song lyrics and popular movies. There are oscillation overthrusters and beryllium spheres. There’s The Middleman’s elaborate ejaculations of surprise, including a few that are rather off-color if you stop to parse them.
No, it’s not deep. But it’s a joyous kind of not-deep, and it works… which is an amazing accomplishment for a show that is composed almost entirely of metatext, to the point where it barely has any actual text of its own. I imagine in four hundred years, this will make about as much sense to historians as a Ben Jonson satire does to us today.
In the meantime, however, it’s rather like potato chips. Really good potato chips.
Pass the bag.
The Middleman was airing Monday nights at 10/9c on ABC Family, but is currently on hiatus. However, I bet you can borrow the episodes from a friend.