The Bittersweet Broadcast Box-Set: The Middleman on DVD

Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that feels like it was made just for you. The in-jokes reference things you loved growing up; the serial sci-fi sensibility toes the fine line you love between caper and parody; you get to live the dream of seeing zombie fish come to life on the small screen.

For a few million people, The Middleman was that show. A series about a clean-living supernatural crime fighter and the sarcastic art student he selects as his sidekick, the one-season wonder developed a cult following. This was partly due to the cast, with a cast of quirky characters delivering their rapid-fire lines with barely-contained glee, and partly because of the writing, which was designed to reward pop-culture nerds, graphic design nerds, old-movie nerds, continuity nerds, sci-fi nerds—any huddled mass of nerds yearning to breathe free.

I got my DVDs the day they were released. It took me until now to write about it. Here’s why.

What it boils down to, for me, is that I love this show more than any show in recent memory. (And I watch a loooot of TV.) And every time I sat down to review the DVDs, I would end up watching all four episodes on the disc, then feeling the pang of knowing a beloved show is gone forever.

This show was both wry and heartfelt. It knew not to take itself seriously without taking its characters for granted, which is where many satires falter; every episode’s villain was convinced that their plan was sheer elegance in its simplicity, but the essential loneliness of the Middleman, and Wendy’s struggle to keep her life from becoming as lonely, rings true every time. (It helps that both Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales are fantastic actors.)

Many reviewers have pointed out other ways in which this series succeeds: it passes the Bechdel test, it has a Latina lead character who isn’t a stereotype, it largely avoided the sexy-sidekick trope (though poor Lacey got stuck with crushes on every man who wandered past her in the back six, including the hilariously nasty Pip). But watching the show, its greatest success was in creating an engaging world with believable characters, and rewarding the viewer every week with a satisfying narrative. It’s just good TV, you know?

The DVDs offer an opportunity to examine the world further. The crisp transfer allows a good look at all the details that give the show its unique aesthetic, from ’50s diner-menu motifs to the Deco poster in the lobby of Jolly Fats that both looks good and sharply evokes the Middleman’s personality.

There are the usual Web goodies, which chronicle showrunner Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s weekly webcasts, and the series of PSA promos that first got me interested in the show.

Four of the episodes come with commentary, either from writers or cast. Of these, my favorite might be the commentary from “The Cursed Tuba Contingency,” which includes Morales, Keeslar, Brit Morgan (Lacey), Jake Smollet (Noser), Grillo-Marxuach, and writer Hans Beimler, all trying to stop laughing long enough to say something about the episode. What they say is insightful; their uncontrollable laughter is a glimpse into the cast dynamics. (Hint: that set was probably a blast.)

Perhaps my favorite extra is the gallery of photos by Ralph King; they are recognizably from the Middleman, but they have a certain pathos that in contrast to the wackiness of the other behind-the-scenes materials; they remind us that under the banter, this is a show about superheroes.

I really couldn’t recommend this show more. It’s bleeeeepin’ great.

(And now, your Moment of Zen. From the gag reel: Morales in a Robin costume, trying in vain to put on one of her green gloves, then glancing up at the camera with a grin. “I’m sure this is exactly what Shakespeare wanted.”)

Genevieve is an incurable movie and TV nerd whose fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Federations, and more. Her first novel (Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti) is forthcoming from Prime Books. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.


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