The Middleman: The Complete Series
I’ve loved this show since I watched the pilot. It’s fun, clever, adventurous, and imaginative. The dialogue is wonderful and knowing, and I love the suit-up Avengers homage montage when Wendy finally joins the team.
If you don’t want to read all the detail, here’s the short version: buy the DVD set and enjoy it.
The concept (there’s more information at my earlier link) is that artist Wendy (Natalie Morales) is temping at a lab to pay bills when she’s attacked by some crazy genetic monster. Instead of freaking out, she has a “whatever” approach to saving herself, which impresses the mysterious troubleshooter in an Eisenhower jacket who saves the day. He recruits her to work with him as a Middleman, and they actually describe themselves as superheroes without the spandex, fighting unusual threats and villains.
As the creator says, it was “a show by geeks and for geeks”, with terrific pop culture allusions and a very modern attitude. It presented the idea that heroism was hopeful, not something that would be a burden, a wonderfully refreshing approach. It was full of action and jokes (especially in the scene-change captions), fun and uplifting without being sappy or stupid. It took a little while to get going and for the audience to get used to its unique view of the world, which makes a marathon viewing of several episodes at once an ideal way to try it out.
The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) is a grown-up Boy Scout, admirable and interesting even though he drinks milk and refuses to use bad language. (Also, very handsome.) Wendy is realistic and respected for her skills and coolness under pressure, even when unsure of what she’d been recruited for. Her daffy roommate Lacey (Brit Morgan) is an activist, and their friend Noser (Jake Smollett, my favorite character) apparently lives in the hall outside their apartment and speaks in song lyrics. Ida (Mary Pat Gleason), the robot assistant, resembles a grumpy old schoolteacher and dislikes Wendy. Ida is constantly implying that Wendy’s a pothead in funny ways; my favorite is the reference, “that’s the hippie lettuce talking”.
1. The Pilot Episode Sanction, in which a gorilla becomes a mobster.
2. The Accidental Occidental Conception
A terra cotta warrior who can control earth with his mind wants to kill Duncan, the heir to the Qin Dynasty. Meanwhile, Lacey sets out to protest the fur-using Roxy, a former succubus who is now a fashion designer, but winds up as her assistant.
3. The Sino-Mexican Revelation
Wendy is supposed to be trained by Sensei Ping, but he’s abducted by Mexican wrestlers, while Lacey takes a job at the Booty Chest, “the pirate-themed sports bar with scantily clad waitresses”. This episode introduces Brendan Hines as Tyler Ford, who would have been the Middleman trainee if his roommate wasn’t a total loser. He and Wendy immediately bond over her “poor man’s Yugo”. I like the two of them together; they spark nicely, and it’s good for her not to be paired up with her boss. This is also a great episode for showing the depth of Wendy and Lacey’s friendship.
4. The Manicoid Teleportation Conundrum
Wendy’s loser ex-boyfriend put their breakup on the internet, which makes it difficult for her to concentrate on the mission of hunting down aliens who look like plastic surgery addicts.
5. The Flying Fish Zombification
Wendy continues training while she and Lacey prepare for an art crawl through their apartment building and share notes on their mother issues. Unfortunately, Wendy faces conflict between her job and her friends, as a giant zombie pike is infecting people with crazed undead desire for fish, keeping her from Lacey’s performance. Everyone is even stranger than usual in this episode, which is saying something. The flying fish fight is hilarious, as is Noser’s version of “Stump the Band”, amazing in its simplicity. There are also some unusual effects and filming choices that heighten the surreality of all the events. Here’s where the show really demonstrates how weirdly amazing it can be. And a continuing antagonist is introduced in the person of Pip, the apartment building owner’s son and annoying artist wannabe.
6. The Boy-Band Superfan Interrogation
Pip rips off Wendy’s paintings for his own gallery show, although they’re based on her cases. Varsity Fanclub guest stars as a successful boy-band who are secretly alien dictators trying to get enough teengirl screams to open a warp back to their home galaxy. The group placement is much too labored and perhaps the most obvious reminder that this originally ran on ABC Family.
7. The Cursed Tuba Contingency
It’s back to high quality, and the beginning of a terrific run of episodes! A cursed tuba from the Titanic is this episode’s Maguffin, plus Roxy and her succubi return. We learn that the Middleman’s favorite movie is “Ride Lonesome”, which he has seen the beginning of 16 times, as he and Lacey flirt adorably. (She calls him “sexy bossman” and “pillowlips”.) It all wraps up at a Titanic-themed yacht party.
8. The Ectoplasmic Pan-Hellenic Investigation
Tyler returns, seeking his soulmate after a bout of two-day amnesia. (I was very glad to see him again. He was a good character played well, as so many others were on this show.) Listen for lots of Ghostbusters references, as Wendy investigates a haunted sorority house. There’s even a slap fight!
9. The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown
Kevin Sorbo returns as a thawed-out Middleman from 1969, frozen as a secret weapon against a super-villain, but the real meat of the episode is Wendy’s concern about the future of her relationship with Tyler.
10. The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation
Wendy and the Middleman must stop Vladdy, the ventriloquist dummy that formerly belonged to Vlad the Impaler, from possessing its new owner to reunite with his vampire puppet bride. After getting a warning about Noser’s future, Lacey and Pip set out to find him. Note that the Vlad memorabilia auction is run by Steve Valentine, whom I remember fondly from Crossing Jordan and Nikki.
11. The Clotharian Contamination Protocol
Tyler’s good deed gets him a job as assistant to a world-changing corporate god. A Voyager probe returns to earth, contaminates Ida, and the result is evil robot mayhem in an episode with many Die Hard allusions and the requisite sci-fi “strip down and decontaminate” scene. Has the wonderful line, when a robot is reminded about the three laws protecting humans, “Kiss my Asimov.”
12. The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome
They pulled out all stops for the series finale. A mastermind is leaving mirrored clues about a plan to destroy the Earth amid thefts of a beryllium sphere and oscillation overthruster. It’s all to create a doorway to a parallel reverse universe, which Wendy gets sucked into. Noser’s violent, Lacey runs a strip club where she cooks rabbits, and Ida… well, you have to see it to believe it. It’s the mirror Middleman who’s most different, though. He’s tattooed, half-naked in chaps, and wears an eyepatch. Think a sexier Snake Plissken, and you’ll be close. (They know their references — one of the addresses they investigate is on Plissken Circle.)
The Set and Commentaries
This four-disc DVD set collects the 12 episodes (four per disc), while the last disc is all bonus features. It’s a very comprehensive collection. The only thing missing is a new mini-doc, talking to the cast and crew now that they know the show is over.
The first, seventh, 11th, and 12th episodes have commentaries. Creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach always participates. On the pilot, he and the director, Jeremiah Chechik, talk about design and creative choices. On “Tuba Contingency”, Javier is joined by four main cast members — Brit Morgan, Jake Smollett, Natalie Morales, and Matt Keeslar — as well as the episode’s writer, Hans Beimler, to discuss the Lacey/Middleman relationship and generally sound like they’re having fun.
The 11th episode commentary is a writers’ roundtable. This was the first TV episode from the writer, Margaret Dunlap, so they assembled Javier and three other writers to razz her about it and talk about the many Doctor Who references. The final episode is just Javier, Natalie, and Matt, looking back at their work on the show as a whole. I would have liked to have heard more commentaries, but I think the selection we have is a good one, and I’m glad there weren’t any included where the participants didn’t have anything to say.
The Bonus Features
* Five Web Featurettes (about 18 minutes in total). Javier and actors explain the concept with clips and interview footage in promos that aired for ABC Family. There’s a set tour, showing off gadgets and hats, commentary on the comic roots of the series, and more on the Varsity Fanclub appearance.
* Javi-Casts (14 of them, about an hour and 20 minutes total), which are web interviews with Javier where he answers fan questions. I appreciated seeing Wendy’s paintings showed off and some of the other writers appearing. Some fans seemed to want Wendy and the Middleman to get together, but I totally agree with Javier that it was a working/brother-and-sister-type relationship, not a romantic one.
It’s obvious that these originally aired online, because on TV, there are artifacts and visual dragging when he moves too quickly and the video can’t keep up. The pictures aren’t that important, though, because it’s just him talking to us. Although this and the previous set of features are time-bound, I was very glad they were included in this package, because they’re great reminders of the context in which the show aired.
* A gag reel (8 minutes), many of which feature people having trouble with the often complicated and packed dialogue.
* Two alternate scenes, one of which is only storyboards and dialogue.
* Audition footage (12 minutes or so) for Natalie, Brit, Jake, and Mary Pat.
* Three opening title sequences.
* A short discussion of the Wilhelm scream (5 minutes), a sound effect first used in 1951, and clips of everywhere it was used in the series.
* A table read of the final episode.
* The Middleman-ager — Five web promo sneak peeks. One has Vladdy, which is neat.
* Five PSAs, fake public service announcements from the characters.
* A Varsity Fanclub music video.
* A show photo gallery.
Whew! In addition to all that, the package design is nicely detail-oriented. The two disc holders are mock personnel dossier folders, one each for Wendy and the Middleman. The “Truth Bomb User Manual” insert includes an introduction by Grillo-Marxuach and episode descriptions. There’s also a flyer for the tie-in graphic novel finale, The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse. About the only thing they left out was anything that talked about why the show wasn’t renewed.
It was almost painful watching the show again, because I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed and missed it. I had to concentrate on how entertaining it all was and the pleasure of the witty dialogue. At least I have this set to re-watch whenever I need a jolt of inspiration. I still have hope that, if this series gets the attention it deserves, we’ll see more of Wendy and the Middleman’s adventures, somehow. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)