Each season a slew of new tv shows are unleashed, all of them vying for your attention. Some flourish and grow, while others are ignored, while a few are even abandoned by the network. This article is not about an ugly duckling that failed to grow into a Swan, it’s about a Swan that was raised by a mouse and wasn’t given the chance of growing into an even better Swan…
The Middleman was supposed to be a TV series, but after initial disinterest from the networks, creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach turned his ideas into a comic, where he could fully realise the concept without the budgetary restrictions of television.
Clearly, this incarnation of The Middleman was enough to entice the networks into having another look and it then became a tv series as originally intended.
Strangely though, it became a TV show on ABC Family, which is not known for sci-fi or anything that is odd. Tyically, ABC Family has family oriented (as you’d expect) programming consisting mostly of comedies and general teen fare; not the home you’d expect of an odd, surreal idea such as The Middleman.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself! Just what is The Middleman?
Set in the present day, the main premise is relatively straightforward, with the titular ‘Middleman’ being an agent for an unknown organisation, that is “fighting evil, so you don’t have to”. After a chance meeting with Wendy Watson (nicknamed ‘DubDub’), a struggling artist, The Middleman recruits her to train as the next Middleman. Assisted by Ida, a grumpy robot, the duo tackle world problems that others can’t handle. Aside from the main characters there are some other significant characters that really add depth and colour to the show, such as Lacey Thornfield, Wendy Watson’s artist roommate, and Noser, the bohemian neighbour and many aspects of The Middleman that stood out and became fan favourites involved these characters.
As with most new shows, the cast was a mixture of old faces and some relatively unknown actors (at the time). The Middleman, was played by Matt Keeslar, who has an extensive film history, and Ida by Mary Pat Gleason, whose filmography goes on for ever! In contrast, Wendy Watson and Lacey Thornfield were played by Natalie Morales and Brit Morgan respectively, two relative newcomers who are now more well known: Natalie Morales for Parks and Recreation and White Collar (as well as escaping the nightmare that is the new Chelsea Handler show), and Brit Morgan for True Blood. This cast gelled immediately though and all gave performances that let the show start extremely well straight out of the box; performances so good that Natalie Morales and Brit Morgan will always be DubDub and Lacey Thornfield to me, no matter what they do… (to a certain extent!)
With the show coming out of ABC family, there were doubts as to what depth or merit it would have though, but what set the Middleman concept apart from what could have been a disastrously dull kids show, is the intelligence and cultural references that run throughout the episodes.
Each episode has a central theme that is mined for numerous geeky references and there are many throwaway and surreal moments that just add further depth and wit to the proceedings, which all add up to a great mixture of fun and intelligence, preventing it being just shallow nonsense or an idiotic piece of slapstick for kids.
While imbued with an adult feel, the tone of the show is campy & playful, and everything has a fun, retro feel that harks back to Batman, Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and any number of 1950s & 60s sci-fi films and tv shows. All through the show, this is seen in many ways, such as all technology is futuristic, yet seemingly designed in the 1930s, and all the villains are criminal masterminds or twisted geniuses of the type seen in Bond films. The cases they dealt with tended to be of the remarkably world threatening variety, with bizarre and complex elements that really played with that 60s cold war spy drama aesthetic, while also bringing in and playing with sci-fi tropes.
There was something about this mixture of retro sci-fi and surreal banter than captured my imagination and I was won over quite quickly. The show could be enjoyed on several levels, both quite simply as a fun action show, or more properly with all the depth from the references and homages and it really rewarded the viewer who spent time engaging with the material.
Ultimately, The Middleman wasn’t a great fit for ABC Family and arguably was too adult and intelligent for the network, and it probably would have fared better at another network. It is possible that other options existed, such as dumbing down the show to a tween level, or making it more serious, but either option would have upset the balance of what made the show great and been pointless.
Originally set for 13 episodes, the order was cut down to 12 after poor ratings, (with the 13th ending up being released in comic book form) and we were all denied the future development of a great idea with the cancellation at the end of those 12 episodes. In many ways, The Middleman was a greater success creatively than many now lauded shows were at the same point. Take for example Buffy or Star Trek: TNG at the end of their first season: Buffy had yet to become a great show and was very much standard teen fare, while Star Trek: TNG was appalling in many ways, which wouldn’t get fixed and turned around until it’s third season. It is in that context that it is unknown how more surreal and inventive The Middleman could have become had it been given time to grow and really spread it’s wings. Unfortunately, this was not to be and we’ll have to just savour the 12 episodes we do have and dream of what could have been…
If there is a silver lining to be found, it is that The Middleman showcased some exceptional talent and I’ve followed the work of Natalie Morales, Brit Morgan and Javier Grillo-Marxuach especially, ever since. If only they could work together again at some point!