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,  “????????????!” 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. 


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