“…an over-the-top, sixteen-car-pileup-sugar-popped-cereal-bowl of a series that’s not afraid to be everything your mother warned you about television: a cartoonish extreme, randomly fantastic, special-effects laden, three-fisted walking-and-talking toy-line advertisement of an action-adventure-sci-fi comic book in which the fabric of reality barely survives in the end, and the journey invariably reveals a completely surreal strangeness behind everything we hold to be true.”
— Javier Grillo-Marxuach‘s original pitch for The Middleman.
Wendy “Dub-Dub” Watson is an art school graduate who, like most artists, has to get a Real Job to get by in life. Because she’s an artist, this means temp work. Her mother worries about her and calls to ask embarrassing questions about her sex life that Wendy answers in dutiful deadpan … until the day she’s temping for a genetics research firm and a multi-limbed, multi-eyed monster shows up in the reception area. Enter…The Middleman, a refugee from the Silver Age of Comics, from his looks to his manner of speech. And having dispatched his duty, he warns Wendy that as far as the rest of the world is concerned this was a “gas explosion” and if she tells the truth of what she’s seen he’ll have to root her out like a hog and kill her.
Wendy is immediately fired; it turns out her boss believes that she was the one who caused the “gas explosion” by fiddling with her missing father’s lucky lighter. She spends a day pounding the pavement looking for more temp work but she finds no prospects now that word’s spread that she’s a possible pyromaniac. So she returns to the illegal sublet she shares with another young, photogenic artist only to have her artist-activist roommate Lacey inform her that she has a message from one more temp agency…a rather oddly named temp agency…and they want to see her immediately. Wendy is then recruited by a secret agency to fight against evil forces.
Still doubtful? Let me seal the deal for you. The pilot episode features a super-intelligent ape who escapes captivity, murders several members of the Italian Mafia, spouts a half dozen catch phrases from American movies on the subject including Scarface, Goodfellas and The Godfather, before being revealed as the pawn of the true villain.
Wendy’s cynical attitude and matter-of-fact reactions to things like the eyeball monster make her an ideal candidate for the job. Despite the problems a twenty-four hour a day “temp job” causes in her personal life.
Originally a comic book, Javier Grillo-Marxuach aptly adapted it for a surprisingly faithful series that had one season on the increasingly inaccurately named ABC Family Channel. The season was originally intended to be thirteen episodes long, but was cut to twelve for budgetary reasons (and still managed to end on a satisfying note). The script for the never-filmed thirteenth episode, titled “The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse,” debuted in a table read at Comic-Con ’09 with almost the entire original cast, and was released as a graphic novel shortly thereafter.
The Middleman is the kind of show for fans of The Tick or Mel Brooks movies, lots of quirky jokes some of which take a minute to register because your brain needs time to process them. It’s kind of a ‘men in black’ thing without the memory eraser. There are running gags in every episode, sometimes it’s the fake names, sometimes it’s about song titles, and sometimes it’s even the info that pops up X-Files style on the screen.
There’s plenty there for the Cult TV and Movie fan and not in that snarky shoe-horned way that ‘The Big Bang Theory’ pulls off. For example every episode used the Wilhelm scream in some way. In most of the later episodes, the phrase “My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity” is spoken by the villain whenever the (usually quite complicated and inelegant) details of their plans are revealed. The screenwriters often choose for each episode an overall theme or reference to a particular work of pop culture. For example, in episode two, many names were taken from Frank Herbert’s Dune. The fifth episode, which was about zombies, contained numerous references to the band The Zombies. The eleventh episode, which involved an alien threat, contained many references to classic Doctor Who characters, and a “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster”, a drink from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is mentioned. In “The Ectoplasmic Panhellenic Investigation”, many references were made to Ghostbusters. In “The Clotharian Contamination Protocol” a theme used very frequently were paraphrased or directly taken dialogue fragments from the Die Hard movies. Also, the Clotharian message sent to Earth was written in Aurebesh, the Star Wars alphabet, specifically the one created by Boba Fonts – as revealed by the number system unique to the font. Additionally, in “The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome”, references are made to the John Carpenter film Escape from New York, such as The Middleman and Wendy taking the undercover names of “Van Cleef” and “Russell” respectively. Also, the alternate Middleman is a tribute to and parody of Snake Plissken, the aforementioned film’s protagonist.
The Middleman is what ‘Austin Powers‘ and the unspeakable ‘Avengers’ movie tried to be and failed, a glorious ride through pop culture. I love it because it is made by people who love their characters and their world. They took every superhero stereotype, from marvel comics, over Kung Fu flicks, up to Mexican wrestlers added a dash of MIB and shook it all up. The writers always keep their sympathy for these figures and the values they represent. Watching this is like rereading all your old comic books and falling in love with them all over again.