Reviews

The Middleman: The Complete Series

Sometimes its cleverness gets the best of it, but The Middleman’s mix of cynicism, innocence, and quirk makes for a hugely enjoyable and original show.


The Middleman: The Complete Series

Distributor: Shout! Factory
Cast: Matt Keeslar, Natalie Morales, Mary Pat Gleason, Brit Morgan, Jake Smollet
Network: ABC
US release date: 2009-07-28
The Middleman: You know how in comic books there’s all kinds of mad scientists and aliens and androids and monsters and all of them want to either destroy or take over the world?

Wendy: In comic books, sure.

The Middleman: Well, it really does work like that.

The Middleman seemed destined for cult status almost immediately. It’s origins as a pilot pitch to a comic book series back to an adapted television series sets it up as a project that has been dealt with with a great deal of reluctance and an unclear understanding of how to make it work. Javier Grillo-Marxuach has created a world of aliens, monsters, and alternate dimensions -- a place where a covert operation to fight these creatures and their creators is fronted by the Jolly Fats Weehawken Employment Agency. Right away, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just another crime-fighting or superhero show.

The series follows a no-nonsense artist, Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), working a temp job. At one of her assignments comes face to face with a monster. Her cool head and general unflappability instantly marked her as a candidate for the Middleman’s (Matt Keeslar) organization, and she is quickly recruited to work with him. The organization is rounded out by Ida (Mary Pat Gleason), a robot whose “appearance processor got stuck at Domineering Schoolmarm Version 2.0” and who holds down the fort at headquarters.

The Middleman seems to come from another, simpler time – he only drinks milk, loves classic cowboy movies, and never swears – while Wendy is sarcastic and cynical. Keeslar plays The Middleman with an innocence and optimism that plays wonderfully off Morales’ more laid-back characterization. Their opposite personalities set them up to deliver alternately dry and outrageous lines. The Middleman, in particular, gets the frequent opportunity to say some hilariously sanitized versions of exclamations, such as “son of a monkey’s uncle” and “hot flaming pork buns!” – and Keeslar always delivers with unbridled enthusiasm.

Wendy’s personal life is rounded out by her roommate and best friend, Lacey (Brit Morgan), and her guitar-strumming, lyric-quoting friend, Noser (Jake Smollet). Lacey is also an artist and an activist who quickly develops a doomed crush on The Middleman. The friendship between Wendy and Lacey serves as a reminder that Wendy exists in the real world, as well (or at least, the real world according to The Middleman) and establishes some normalcy in a series filled with strange occurrences.

Highly stylized and filled with homages to various films, comics, and television shows, The Middleman’s surface breeziness is actually weighed pretty heavily with deeper meanings and inside references. For example, one of the extras focuses on the repeated use of the Wilhelm scream, a well-known sound editor’s go-to scream that has been heard in a large and varied number of films throughout the years. Grillo-Marxuach made it a point to include the scream in every one of the 12 episodes and his obvious enthusiasm for its inclusion speaks volumes.

Yet in the pilot commentary it’s revealed that despite the plethora of hidden and not-so-hidden allusions, this is often the result of toning things down. Grillo-Marxuach wanted more extensive use of chyrons and more stylish lighting choices, for example. In various commentaries it becomes clear that ABC Family had quite a few opinions when it came to the tone of the show and they were clearly unafraid to voice their concerns.

The commentaries also reveal Grillo-Marxuach’s penchant for talking fast, making many pop culture references, and often leaving his thoughts unfinished. It quickly becomes obvious just where the inspiration for how his characters act and speak comes from.

Sometimes its cleverness gets the best of it, but The Middleman’s mix of cynicism, innocence, and quirk makes for a hugely enjoyable and original show. ABC Family always seemed like an odd fit for such an unusual series, and perhaps on a different network it would have found a more appropriate audience. But The Middleman was just offbeat enough to probably always be a cult series.

Grillo-Marxuach and his writers have echoed this sentiment in their repeated mantra that the series was “a show by nerds for nerds”. Campy effects, outrageous villains, and bizarre situations create a series that is both modern and a throwback – much like its two leads – and offers an original, well-executed premise that goes a long way in making this as engaging a show as it is.

The Middleman: The Complete Series boasts an impressive amount of bonus features that include four commentaries with cast and crew; alternate and deleted scenes; web featurettes; weekly Javicasts (podcasts by Grillo-Marxuach); casting sessions; a table read of the final episode; a gag reel; and more. The commentaries and Javicasts are especially packed with information and plenty of personality – very much in keeping with the series – and offer a set that has been put together with a real understanding of the materials and its fans.

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