In which we take a break from the books, and dive into a television show for Old School Wednesday’s March event…
The Middleman was a short-lived TV show with 12 episodes that aired in 2008 on ABC Family and which has sparked a cult following since then. We never heard of it – even though the show was created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, one of Lost’s writers – until very recently when having lunch with a friend who is a huge fan of the show. She made it sound super fun, and with all episodes available on Youtube, we decided to give it a go for our inaugural Old School Wednesdays Watchalong!
Created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine
With Matt Keeslar, Natalie Morales, Mary Pat Gleason and Brit Morgan
Ana: According to TV Tropes this was the original pitch for The Middleman:
…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 cartoonishly 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.
I feel like they TOTALLY 100% lived-up to their dream. Apart from the “special effects laden part”. Unless by “special effects” you actually mean “made in your backyard”. Which is totally fine and cool, the terrible special effects in The Middleman is actually one of the things I found to be most endearing about it. But I am ahead of myself.
If I had to describe The Middleman to someone I would go with a “The Middleman is a geeky love letter to SciFi with fabulous female characters and SUPERHEROES SPIES, terrible special effects and a lot of quotable lines.”
But what in fact is the actual Middleman? Well, the Middleman is someone who solves problems of the supernatural variety and this show concerns itself (mostly) with Middleman in-training, Wendy Watson.
This is fantastically fun in the most genuine, earnest way possible. From episode titles (“”The Boy Band Superfan Interrogation” or “The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation”) to repeated internal jokes (“My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity”); from lovable recurring secondary characters (Ida and Noser to name a few) to the sheer amount of geeky quotes (omg the zombie episode! And the vampire episode!), this show was a pure delight from start to finish.
Thea: Do you ever have those moments when you’re watching a show or a movie, and you think think to yourself, what the hell am I watching? Such was my experience with The Middleman. It starts off with incredible cheese – and, to Ana’s point, terrible special effects. The first episode shows Wendy Watson, aka Dub-Dub or Dubby, playing receptionist at a genetics research lab (not as impressive as it sounds) in her latest role as temp. She’s on the phone with her mother, answering delightfully personal questions in between fielding work calls when a giant, tentacled lady monster bursts forward from the lab and threatens to destroy anything in its path (including our intrepid heroine, Dub-Dub).
Enter, The Middleman. A milk-drinking, antiquated euphemism-slinging, gentleman hero from the silver age of “The city is in peril, Robin! Gee golly wiz, let’s save it!” school of comics.
The immediate things that stood out to me from this very first scene were these:
1. There’s a lot of deadpan delivery combined with a fast talky-talk humor that I love (popularized by shows like, say, Buffy or Matt Smith’s run on Doctor Who).
2. The special effects are indeed terrible, but in a wholly endearing way.
3. The Middleman just goes for it. Dub-Dub doesn’t really question WHY The Middleman is there or that he has a talking, scanning machine that measures her stress levels. She just coolly accepts and assesses the situation, takes it in stride, and moves on with her day. (Frankly, Wendy is more upset about losing her temp job than the giant tentacled monster that threatened to kill her.)
As the pilot episode progresses, and the series progresses, these observations are reinforced, a hundredfold. Nay, a thousandfold. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started The Middleman (there’s always THE FEAR of not getting or loving the thing that other people get and love), but the more I watched this quirky, what the hell am I looking at show, the more I started to like it….even love it. Every episode gets better as the show finds its footing and the characters become less caricaturish.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, jumping bananas, sweet mother of Preston Tucker, great hearts of palm, I love this show.
Ana: Do I have a favourite episode? Possibly the last one, “The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome” because I love mirror/bizarro worlds.
I do however, have favourite moments and quotes.
Like for example, the fact that The Middleman is this squeaky clean goody two-shoes who drinks milk and replaces swearing words with things like:
Grapes of Wrath, Dubbie!
Flowers for Algernon! We’re on our way.
Eyes without a face!
My little pony!
On the other end of the spectrum, Wendy had no problem using profanity which was a delight in itself.
And this is the sort of self-aware dialogue that I loved the most about the show:
Wendy: Can I say something?
The Middleman: That’s what the Founding Fathers fought for.
Wendy: What’s up with the vents? I mean we’re coming from an isolation chamber inside a secret headquarters built by an organization so covert we don’t even know who they are. Yet somehow we have vents large enough to crawl into with accessible registers everywhere. Was this building designed by TV writers or what?
The Middleman: No, it wasn’t.
Thea: Oh man. This is tough, because there are only 12 episodes to choose from, and some of them were SO GOOD. I’ll list my favorite, highlighted moments, then:
The Sino-Mexican Revelation was the first episode that had me actually laughing aloud. (It’s my “Walkabout” episode – aka, the episode from which there was NO RETURN because I had fallen in love with the show. You know what I’m talking about.) I especially love Wendy losing her temper with Master Ping, Master Ping’s awesome over-the-top kung fu classic film persona (clad in Lucha Libre mask – FOR GOOD REASON, I might add), and the ludicrous fun of a Lucha Libre gang out for blood. My fave moment from this episode is when Master Ping and the Luchadores meet and start speaking spanish (subtitled in english), and Ping makes an offhanded comment about ignoring the silly idiot girl next to him. Dub-Dub – and actress Natalie Morales – is Hispanic and fires back in Spanish “HEY, I understand.” For a moment during the episode, too, when everyone is speaking English, the subtitles remain on screen but in Spanish. It’s little clever things like this that make me giddy.
The Flying Fish Zombification – because, what’s better than zombies screaming TROUUUUUUUUT? Also, zombies and energy drinks. Also also, Dub-Dub needed a zombie episode given her prolific and encyclopedic knowledge of all things Horror. Also also also, the relationship between Dubby and her bff Lacey really comes to a head in this episode and I LOVE THAT STORYLINE AND FRIENDSHIP SO HARD, PEOPLE.
The Boyband Superfan Interrogation – because a boyband that is actually evil dictators in exile amassing powers from teenage scream (hello, Monsters Inc moment) is as good as it gets.
The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown – because KEVIN SORBO!!!! And his antiquated, sexist, terrible treatment of other people is a way to examine the other side of comics (and fandom) historically and in a relevant and powerful way. Also, a villain that melts things, named “The Candle” is hilarious.
But hands down, my favorite episode had to be The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation. It’s obvious lip service to Buffy (at one point, Wendy even says “AW YEAH, getting my Buffy on”), but with a hilarious twist – because puppets. We also learn something about Noser in this episode, which is equally hilarious and awesome. AND LACEY AND THE MIDDLEMAN. *SOB*
Ana: I love Wendy and how unfazed she is by things and the deadpan delivery of her lines should be enough to give an award or something to the amazing Natalie Morales.
But then we have LACEY, Wendy’s best friend, roommate and generally speaking, perfect human being. Is there a more adorable roommate in all of TV? I do not think so. I loved The Middleman in general for everything that it is but most of all, I lived for the relationship and friendship between Wendy and Lacey.
Lacey uttered hands-down my top 1 quote of the entire series. When someone hurt Wendy, Lacey got so furious and hurt on her behalf that she wanted to get back at the person with a “hellacious byzantine revenge.” I swear I will use these words henceforth to the day I die.
Thea: Dub-Dub FOR LIFE. I love Wendy Watson, her deadpan delivery, her self-doubts and her frustrations, her overt geekiness and her love for all things horror and video game related. Most of all, though, I love Wendy because her heart is in the right place, even when she’s tested and put to the limit of her abilities. When there’s the risk of losing Ida or just “taking one on the chin,” Wendy isn’t complacent. She looks for a better way to get things done, without sacrificing the values that make her Wendy. That’s very cool.
It’s also true of her best friend, Vegan Animal Activist and Spoken Performance Art Maven Lacey – who didn’t start the show as my favorite character, but grew into a favorite as the series progressed. I love the relationship between Wendy and Lacey more than anything; their friendship is the stuff of greatness.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Middleman himself – because he, too, is a fantastic character with so much unexplored backstory that I wish we could have seen. He’s noble and fair, uncompromising in his vision of right and wrong almost to a fault – he doesn’t allow himself to live outside of his job. Granted, saving the world is a big job – but Dub-Dub shows that there can be balance.
Not So Fast Buster!
Ana: There isn’t a lot I did not like about The Middleman. I CAN see how it was not a super successful show: I feel its quirkiness belong to us Internet/Tumblr/Youtube people rather than on ABC Family so I guess I understand how it was cancelled so soon.
Thea: OK, for reals? I wasn’t a fan of Ida. *Ducks flying produce* I love the IDEA of Ida (a cranky counterpoint version of Rosie from the Jetsons, kinda sorta), but the actor just didn’t sell it for me as much as I wanted it to. YMMV.
Ana: Folks, I was so into shipping the Middleman with Lacey, it was almost too painful to bear. Anyone else felt the same?
In case you can’t tell, I loved this show and highly recommend for the sheer fun of it.
Thea: I loved this odd, quirky, delightfully tongue-in-cheek, unexpected show wholeheartedly. It reminded of the best things of shows that I love: the constant running in-jokes of Arrested Development (the “My plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity” line is a perfect example), the talky-talk banter of Buffy, the grotesquely bad robots and special effects of Doctor Who. But most of all, I love The Middleman as it stands on its own: a satirical explosion of Speculative Fiction/Pop Culture goodness (everything from Back to the Future, to Die Hard), powered by a core of deeply memorable, lovable characters, that isn’t afraid to Go Boldly Where No Show Has Gone Before… even if that means zombie trout, cursed tubas, succubi (and incubi) halfway houses, and vampires resurrected in the bodies of puppets.
And now we turn it over to you! What did you think of THE MIDDLEMAN?