Being the TV fan that I am, I’m always on the lookout for a good inside joke. The type of thing where one TV show will reference another show, or a movie, or even a comic book, usually in some obscure way, so only those “in the know” will get the reference… and I’d fall down laughing while the rest of the room is looking at me like I’ve just lost my mind, only because they didn’t “get” the hidden joke. I do this all the time, thanks to my knowledge of old TV. My friends think I’m crazy. I’m having the time of my life.
Now… imagine, if you will, a show which not only told entertaining, strange, and wild stories, but also stuck in those same types of “in-jokes”, not only occasionally, but more as a REQUIRED part of the experience. Not just self-referential, but referring to almost every single Geek- or SF-related touchstone that they could think of. TV Geek Heaven here on earth (or in the case of one episode, the underworld!). This, my friends, is the greatest show most of you have never heard of. This is THE MIDDLEMAN. (Yes, in bold, and caps, and italics, just because it’s THAT special….)
“You know how in comic books, there are all kind of mad scientists and aliens and androids and monsters, and all of them want to either destroy or take over the world?”
“In comic books, sure….”
“Well, it really does work like that…”
–Wendy Watson, first discovering the world of The Middleman
You see, all of those types of adventures really and truly do happen. And the only person standing between us and the unspeakable threat, the over-the-top villain, the supernatural menace… is The Middleman. His motto: Fighting Evil, So You Don’t Have To. (Really. That’s the motto.)
“Our mandate is to protect the people from threats infra-, extra-, and juxta-terrestrial, not to become consumed with the problems of mundane life.”
This show was one of those you simply couldn’t have on as “background noise”. You had to watch. There were sight gags, rat-at-tat-tat verbal exchanges, and even jokes stuck in the on-screen captions used to set scenes and establish locations, like: “Middleman HQ. 42 Minutes before the inevitable detonation”. Same episode, in dialogue, less than two minutes later: “You sound like Graham Chapman and you dress like a vestal virgin.” Keep the in-jokes coming guys, no matter how fast we have to pinball between Die Hard, Monty Python, and everything else in the known universe.
Creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach was a child of TV himself, and usually chose a show, movie, or style for each episode, and loaded it with obscure references in dialogue, props, and captions. Episode references ranged from Back to the Future to Japanese Kung-Fu epics, from “an obscure ’60’s show” called Star Trek to Ghostbusters. He also made sure that every single episode contained the “Wilhelm Scream”, a sound cue of a person screaming as they died, originally used in a 1951 western film and most famously used in the original Star Wars for a falling Stormtrooper. It’s part of The Middleman drinking game.
Grillo-Marxuach put so many references in the episodes that he started posting annotations on the web a few days after every episode aired, just so viewers would understand where all the “in-jokes” came from. This is the kind of dedication, and attention to detail, that is unheard of from most TV creators.
The Middleman (played to deadpan perfection by Matt Keeslar) was a straight arrow hero in the old, square-jawed manner. He drank milk, and never cussed, even though he was full of unusual euphemisms whenever he was frustrated. Although he was a bit at odds with the “modern” society and its ways, his new assistant, Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), was cool, hip, and geek-conversant as well. While she was new to all this “fighting monster” stuff, she was literally unfazed by it all, and simply took it as normal that ghosts of co-eds were haunting a sorority house; or that giant multi-eyed, multi-armed monsters were trying to break out of a science lab where she was working as a bored temp receptionist. The monsters and aliens and mad scientists were simply one more thing life gave her to deal with.
“My gut says we may be dealing with the seminal stages of a zombie outbreak.”
“Entrail-ripping brain-tubing zombies?”
“The very same.”
Wendy is “grounded” by her roommate Lacey and friend Noser (played by Brit Morgan and Jake Smollett, respectively), although grounded is a relative term. Lacey is, by her own admission, a “confrontational spoken-word performance artist.” As she says, “I confront, I speak… Art.” She also has a crush on Wendy’s new boss, The Middleman, meaning Wendy has to be particularly careful in NOT describing exactly what her new job is (defending the earth, stopping hordes of super-powered Mexican wrestlers, etc.) and trying to put up with the obvious, yet impossible, attraction between Lacey and, as Lacey puts it, “sexy boss man”.
And Noser is the resident philosopher, even if the philosophy is so Zen that it’s almost incomprehensible to mortal man… but still seems to make sense. Oh, and he references song lyrics like they’re the wisdom of the ages. Even the “Theme from Shaft“. We also never get to see where, exactly, he lives in the building he shares with Wendy and Lacey. He just kind of hangs out there. In the hallway. All the time.
The Middleman’s office staff isn’t too shabby either. Meet Ida. She used to be a state-of-the-art android, but now….
“She’s had the crankies something awful ever since her appearance processor got stuck on domineering schoolmarm version 2.0.”
Ida, at least at first, doesn’t have the greatest impression of Wendy as a potential Middleman; she’s always making cracks about what a “slacker” she is and how she must be doped up, like most of her generation. But Ida is also capable of being connected to the H.E.Y.D.A.R., a techo-gizmo that can search any database, monitor any situation, and generally get the story going with any information needed to move it along–the perfect exposition device, delivered with attitude by Ida. She also keeps the secrets of the organization that the Middleman actually works for, the O.2.S.T.K. (Later revealed to stand for ‘Organization Too Secret To Know’. Its logo looks like something from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Coincidence? I think not….)
“What kind of a wingnut are we dealing with here?”
“The kind who could kill millions, and take down cities and countries and even puppy dogs and playgrounds…”
Villains and their weaponry ran the gamut: a supposed boy band that was actually a group of alien princes using the energy from the screams of pre-pubescent teen fangirls to open a wormhole and allow them to travel back to their home planet; a cursed tuba that had been part of the dance band on the Titanic and doomed to kill anyone who heard it played; a pair of possessed ventriloquist dummies, one of them being the reincarnation of Vlad the Impaler. Typical, ordinary stuff. And this is just the tip of the iceberg….
Machine-gun toting apes! Aliens addicted to plastic surgery! Ancient warriors made out of terra-cotta clay! Character names stolen from Doctor Who! (OK, other shows have stolen character names from Doctor Who, but Peripigillium Brown? Really?)
So, a fantastic show, with fun performances, over-the-top villainy, and episode titles like The Accidental Occidental Conception; The Flying Fish Zombification; and The Ectoplasmic Panhellenic Investigation… which means more energy was put into the TITLES of The Middleman than some shows put into entire EPISODES. The show couldn’t fail. It just couldn’t!!! I mean, just like all the convoluted and evil schemes hatched every week by the villains… just before they said: “My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity….” (and believe me, a LOT of them said that very line….)
It wasn’t all that simple, for basically one reason. The Middleman aired, of all places, on the ABC Family cable channel, where the top-rated show that season (2008) was The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Not exactly the same target audience. To be completely honest, not even CLOSE to The Middleman‘s target audience. The network was trying to branch out into a new demographic and quite honestly, never found it. Not only did they not find it, but the “new demographic” never ever found The Middleman either. The “reputation” of ABC Family was a place a show like The Middleman would never be seen anyway, so nobody looked there to begin with. To its credit, ABC Family let Grillo-Marxuach and his crew make exactly the show they set out to make, instead of meddling with the show and make it something it wasn’t. That’s rare in this age of television, where shows either get “re-tooled” or just killed off immediately. So, at the very least, props to the network. It seems the only villain that The Middleman couldn’t stop was an unaware audience… ironic, considering the mission of the Middleman on the show was to protect the unaware public from all of those oddball threats in the first place.
Put simply, The Middleman, as a series, was too smart, or too clever, for the room it was in.
The show ran 12 episodes. It was slated to run 13, but Grillo-Marxuach and ABC Family decided to cut out the final episode. Instead, they used part of that production budget to give the show an extra-special 12th and final televised episode, complete with a mirror-universe storyline, more special effects and location shooting, and a bearded, Snake Plissken Escape From New York-style Middleman to turn the series inside-out and reference even more wild styles. The story wasn’t complete, even then, and since the show had a comic-book sensibility (and history, although we won’t go into that here), the “lost final episode”, was performed as a cast reading at that year’s Comic-Con. It was later also published as a Viper Comic in 2009, also partially bankrolled by ABC Family, called The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse. (Oh, and we finally find out the Middleman’s real name. And the amazing history of the OTHER Middlemen throughout history. And another, final, touching Doctor Who reference. And did I mention Mark Shepard as the villain? Really… just perfect. Like the show itself.)
MATT KEESLAR (The Middleman) was the only actor considered for the part of The Middleman, as it was written with him in mind. He’s also known for his scene-stealing work on The Last Days of Disco, and has also been seen in the mini-series productions of Dune and Stephen King’s Rose Red.
NATALIE MORALES (Wendy Watson) can be seen on the most recent season of USA network’s White Collar, and will soon be appearing in the movie sequel to Wall Street, entitled Money Never Sleeps with Michael Douglas. She’s also had a recurring part on the sitcom Parks and Recreation.
MARY PAT GLEASON (Ida) has had a lengthy and varied career, mostly in guest spots ranging from late ’80s productions like Full House and Quantum Leap to current shows like The Mentalist and the United States of Tara. She also had a two-year stint on the soap opera The Guiding Light.
BRIT MORGAN (Lacey Thornfield) was first noticed in a feature part in the telemovie Beer for My Horses, based on the Toby Keith country song, before becoming performance artist Lacey Thornfield on The Middleman. She will soon be seen in a high-profile regular role on the upcoming season of HBO’s True Blood (this time as a redhead, instead of her blonde look as Lacey!)
JAKE SMOLLETT (Noser) performed with many members of his real-life family, on the two-season ABC TGIF series On Our Own during the ’96-’97 seasons. Since The Middleman, he’s been writing and producing an independent film entitled Pitch This, concerning the efforts of a fledgling writer to get his script to bigwig producers in hopes of getting it filmed.
JAVIER GRILLO-MARXUACH (creator/producer) has been a significant part of such TV series as Charmed, The Chronicle, Boomtown, Jake 2.0, Lost, Medium, and, of course, The Middleman. His newest project is an ABC pilot for next year called Zero Department, a techno-thriller.
And as if all this wasn’t crazy enough, here’s what was in store:
“We had this idea that if we had a season two, we would start it as though it were actually the beginning of season seven… as though we went through a time warp and we had no choice but to start shooting. It was going to be like Wendy already had a protégé of her own, and she’d been Middleman for a few years, but they have to go find [Matt], who was like in a monastery in Tibet.
Oh, for a second season. Or a seventh. Or whatever. As it is, we have to be happy with the DVD set, loaded with extras, including a feature on all the episode locations of the Wilhelm Scream and lots of other, unusual things (like many of the “aliases” used for Wendy and The Middleman, usually taken from various SF and other TV shows. More inside jokes.) Hopefully, Grillo-Marxuach will post all those annotations for the episodes sometime soon, so others can laugh along with me at all the references and jokes, and everyone can join in the fun. But for now, find the DVDs and just enjoy yourself. Then tell everyone you know, because they’ll love them too, once they find out. It’s so much better than anything else they’re watching now. Remember:
THE MIDDLEMAN: Fighting Evil (and bad TV)… So You Don’t Have To!!!
LINKS: WE’VE GOT ANNOTATION LINKS!!!
(at least to the last five or so episodes, so you can see how crazy this show was….)
#8: The Ectoplasmic Panhellnic Investigation
#9: The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown
#10: The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation
#11: The Clotharian Contamination Protocol
#12: The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome
12 televised episodes, one episode available as a Table Read and a Comic
ABC Family Network
First aired episode: June 16, 2008
Last aired episode: September 1, 2008
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central: No. Mondays at 10/9 Central
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.