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Serious as a Hefty Bag Full of Rottweilers: Meet “The Middleman”

28 August 2009 Things We Like 6,930 views One CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

My nerdy TV is not your nerdy TV. I don’t watch “Lost” or “Fringe.” My interest in the “Battlestar Galactica” redux waned six episodes into the show’s run.  And I keep up with “Heroes” only to see how badly it misses its mark from week to week. I think that hating on “Heroes” is perhaps more fun than loving “Heroes,” though I wouldn’t know.

I look for an insouciance in these so-called genre shows that few of them are able to deliver — something that’s equal parts “Cowboy Bebop,” (original) “Get Smart,” (original) “Star Trek,” and (Adam West’s) “Batman.” I love a good temporal anomaly as much as the next guy, but there needs to be some heroic wiseass planted off to the side of that rip in the fabric of time and space who’s making fun of it. Worst … temporal …  rift …  ever. The Han-to-Luke ratio must favor Han, or it’s a no-go.

Only three shows in recent years have satisfied those expectations of mine, and two of them are dead. Thankfully, “The Venture Bros.” is beginning a very welcome fourth season on Cartoon Network this fall, and Joss Whedon was able to tie off the loose ends of “Firefly” with a theatrical feature film. To date, there has been no such reprieve for “The Middleman,” Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s terrifically funny adaptation of his own comic series, which was canceled shortly after its first season run on the ABC Family network. But I have hope. When you muck about with time and space, there’s no telling what the future will bring.

For now, all that remains of “The Middleman” is its splendid Shout Factory DVD set, now available through your more nerdy retailers. Grillo-Marxuach, a “Lost” writer with a Glaive-sharp wit and a gift of near-total pop-culture recall, aimed to created “a show by geeks and for geeks” — and unlike too many other showrunners with similar ambitions (cough Tim Kring cough), he largely succeeded.  If you have any love in your heart for Zoe Washburne, James Kirk, Emma Peel or Maxwell Smart; if ever you’ve thrilled to hand-to-hand combat between actors in rubber creature suits; and if ever you’ve laughed a evil scientist-like mad giggle, you could hardly do better than to buy the “Middleman” set and enjoy the spiffiest, smartest, most geek-tacular genre comedy of the past decade.

“The Middleman’s” setup is familiar to anyone who’s ever worked a dead-end job and wished for something to burst through the wall, “Brazil”-like, and make life fun. In the course of bouncing through a series such jobs, art-school refugee Wendy Watson (played by Natalie Morales) is recruited by a mysterious, ray-gun wielding enforcer (a gloriously deadpan Matt Keeslar), who calls himself “the Middleman” for an “organization too secret to know.” A tentacled alien attacks Watson, the Middleman bails her out, and a beautiful friendship is cemented.

In short order, Watson is fitted for an Eisenhower-style waistcoat, outfitted with various deadly weapons, and sent into planet-saving combat against possessed sorority girls, vampire puppets and a mob of masked wrestlers. If this sounds like your typical sci-fi stuff, believe me, it’s saved by the genuine afftection and sharp dialogue exchanged between its two stars:

WENDY WATSON: Every time I get into a relationship, I can always visualize how it’s going to end. But with Tyler, I can’t. It’s totally killing me. Do you have any idea what that’s like?

THE MIDDLEMAN: No. Sounds like something out of one of those hateful independent films. This is exactly why I stick to westerns.

Keeslar plays the Middleman as the straightest of straight arrows, given to hokey but heartfelt outbursts (“Jumpin’ bananas, we’re in Dutch”) and a gift for making outrageous statements as flat fact (“If we don’t find an antidote, her heart’s going to explode like a sausage casing full of weasels.)” Morales deserves a gold medal for taking things in stride (“What about that hentai tentacle beast back there?”) and for gamely playing into geek-fantasy stereotypes, whether they call for donning a Robin The Boy Wonder outfit or answering the eternal Wally West vs. Barry Allen question with a question (“Do you want me to leave?”).

The two face challenges that would have sent Mulder and Scully screaming for the unemployment line. Over the course of thirteen episodes, the Middleman and his young charge confront an energy drink manufacturer called “!!!” (the name isn’t spoken so much as it’s pantomimed) with plans to zombify the planet; a boy band made up of exiled intergalactic warlords; a pair of vampire puppets; a cursed tuba; and the sexism of the 1960s (personified by a Middleman from that era, played by Kevin Sorbo). Running the operations is Ida (the hilarious Mary Pat Gleason), a mumu-clad android whose cranky back-and-forths with Watson pretty much steal the show:

THE MIDDLEMAN: Dubby, I wish I had enough time to prepare you for your first session with Sensei Ping…

IDA: What he’s trying to say is “It’s been nice knowin’ ya.”

WATSON: … I get it, I get it; it’s like Bruce Lee coming back from the dead.

IDA: And beating you with his own coffin. Sensei Ping has destroyed a hundred wanna-be Middlemen. He’ll cut you down like Satan’s gnarly fist.

And so on. The honest truth is that I could easily spend a dozen hours telling you every last thing I love about “The Middleman.” I love the show’s cheesy, “NASA-core” look; I love Wendy Watson’s roommate Lacey (Brit Morgan), a “confrontational spoken-word artist” who does her best thinking in a giant yellow bear suit; Noser (Jake Smolett), who communicates largely through song lyrics; and I love the myriad references and geek-friendly jokes that Grillo-Marxuach manages to stuff into each episode.

Oh, what the hell. One more:

THE MIDDLEMAN: We’re Agents Boetticher and Kennedy, from the American Shrimp and Crab Amalgamated Processors, Law Enforcement branch.


THE MIDDLEMAN: We avoid using the acronym for copyright reasons.

And with that, our two heroes take off in pursuit of a tuba that could destroy the world. I don’t know what terrors the characters of “Fringe” and “Lost” are facing these days, but I promise you that they wouldn’t know how to defeat an apocalyptic tuba. Some jobs require the skills of a Middleman, and we can only hope that his work isn’t through yet.

Geoff Carter

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One Comment »

  1. You are so right about The Middleman. It was an excellent program.

    Unfortunatly, I could tell two shows in that it was just too smart to survive. Every episode had countless, perfectly delivered, quotable lines.

    The running gag about the human jukebox who just says, “Yeah, I know that one too” made me laugh out loud every time.

    Think I’ll go buy me some DVDs.


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