Movie Reviews

Half-Ass TV Review: The Middleman (Jul 24)

I’ve tried watching ABC Family, really I have. But for some reason, it always makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong, like I should pull the shades so the neighbors don’t see. Sure, they’ve had some good shows (Greek and, well….), but it just feels weird. Maybe the fact that ‘Family’ is in the name of the network, and thus something wholesome will be happening, is what puts me off. Maybe it’s the community theater production values, which makes most of their series look like they were filmed at a friend’s house. Or maybe it’s just the way that they occasionally just build a series around a completely unappealing group of actors (You’ve seen Wildfire, right?).

Whatever the case, I always view ABC Family with a cynical, jaundiced eye. That said, I love their new summer series The Middleman so much that I wish there were a way for me to hug it.

Created by Javier-Grillo Marxuach, who wrote for Lost for the first two seasons and penned the “Orientation” episode that was one of the most important in the show’s history, The Middleman is a lighthearted sci-fi comedy about the people who keep us safe from the sort of evil that we wouldn’t believe. You know, like gorilla mob bosses, zombie perch, vengeance-crazed luchadores, and alien overlords masquerading as boy bands. If you’re anything like me, “gorilla mob boss” already sent this series straight to “Record All”.

Matt Keeslar plays The Middleman (so far, he has no other name), a big tough boy scout type. He’s ridiculously experienced in dealing with the bizarre and dedicated to his job, but deeply wholesome. Picture a cross between Dean Venture and Bruce Campbell as Ash. That’s probably blowing your mind right now. Matt Keeslar plays The Middleman, and I just now learned that Keeslar is a native of my hometown of Grand Rapids. Woo! GR Represents! Gerald Ford, Andy Richter, and The Middleman…

The ridiculously adorable Natalie Morales costars as Wendy Watson, The Middleman’s protégé. She’s really the focus of the series, selected as a Middleman in the pilot, and training throughout the rest of the season. Unlike The Middleman, she has a personal life, and struggles to balance saving the world with making it to her friend’s spoken-word performance.

The rest of the cast is largely unknown, but talented. The notable exception is Mary Pat Gleason, who plays Ida, the Middleman’s robot assistant. You will recognize her because she’s been in everything ever. Her IMDB page is IMDB.

There’s not a good way to describe the series without making it sound like Men in Black, but it really isn’t. Sure, it’s regular people versus bizarre menaces, but that also describes Reaper, The X-Files, the BRPD in Hellboy, and about a dozen other things. It’s the execution that’s completely different, especially with the ridiculous nature of their threats. The Middleman takes gun-toting gorillas just as seriously as ancient Earth elementals, and Wendy thinks it’s all a little bit insane. And unlike Men in Black, they try just as hard to be clever as they do to be silly.

The Middleman has the kind of rapid-fire dialogue we haven’t heard on a regular basis since Gilmore Girls. (This, by the way is spunkybean’s first review to reference both Gilmore Girls and The Venture Bros.) This extends to incredibly convoluted title cards, which make me laugh every single time. Most scenes open with onscreen text telling us the place and time – Wendy’s apartment is always referred to as “The illegal sublet which Wendy shares with another photogenic young artist”, for example. Right around the third episode, they started listing the time with completely random time zones with no relation to where the scene is actually taking place. “8:00 Eastern Time” became “12:00 International Atomic Time”, which eventually became “Morris Day and the Time”. It’s silly, and funnier than it has any good reason to be.

The plots are goofy but well-thought out. Sure, the flying perch that turns people into trout-craving zombies with its bite is the sort of thing that could collapse under the weight of its own quirkiness, but the world around it is so well-constructed. Most of the characters live in a real setting, but The Middleman is there to keep that kind of craziness from encroaching on those normal lives. Since nothing phases The Middleman, it makes even the wildest idea fit. And then throw in legitimately clever plot devices like an energy drink called “!!!!”, which you pronounce by grinning, throwing the jazz hands, and stomping a foot. If watching two people do that repeatedly while arguing doesn’t amuse you, then your life makes me sad.

Sure, the ABC Family production values leak through. That flying perch is an absolutely ridiculous special effect, and there’s a very MST3K moment when Wendy’s face is superimposed onto stock footage of a fighter pilot. Still, considering that the episode involved a blood feud between Sensei Ping (of the Clan of the Pointed Stick) and a band of roving Mexican wrestlers, the cheesy effects add to the B-movie vibe. Besides, I don’t care if they can’t afford to put Wendy in a real plane, as long as The Middleman is blurting out expletives like “Flowers for Algernon!” or “Chance of Showers!”

The genre bending and convoluted humor remind me of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and The Tick, both of which are pretty good influences to have. Not successful influences, mind you, but at least they’re catering to the coveted “Me” demographic. I adore The Middleman – it’s a fun show for casual summer viewing, and there’s some nice subtle continuity gags and hints at a larger mythology that should be rewarding for the faithful.

All right ABC Family, you win this round. Just don’t think you’re getting me on board for Three Moons Over Milford or anything.

Score: Four Beans

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *