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DVD Review – The Middleman: The Complete Series
Starring: Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales
Created by: Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Studio: ABC Family
Release Date: July 28, 2009
The Middleman is a series that aired on ABC Family in 2008. It was created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who came up with the concept for the show long before it was picked up-in fact, it first went to comic book (illustrated by Les McClaine) and then back to television series.
Basically the story is about Wendy Watson, who loses her job after a freak accident involving a monster and her Zippo lighter and then finds herself unable to find employment…until she is hired to be the new Middle Man In Training. The Middle Man is a comic book hero, of sorts-he works for an Organization Too Mysterious To Know (OTMTK) that provides him with sophisticated equipment, weapons, and at least 84 Codes of Conduct, and depends on him to be its middle man in solving the “exotic” problems it finds. Like monsters, mad scientists trying to take over the world, aliens, and even a few demons for good measure.
The series ran for 12 episodes (1 short of a “full” season) and follows Wendy’s development from newbie skeptic to competent sidekick (and nearly a co-Middle Man). Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales star as the Middle Man and Wendy; the primary cast is rounded out by Mary Pat Gleason, who plays the Middle Man’s crabby android assistant/liaison with OTMTK, Brit Morgan, who plays Wendy’s roommate Lacey, and Jake Smollett, who plays Wendy’s neighbor and friend Noser. Familiar faces pop up throughout the series as minor characters, including veteran SF actors like Kevin Sorbo (as the old-school Middle Man) and Mark Shepherd (as the head of FatBoy Industries).
I had never heard of this show, and after watching the whole series, I am sad to find that it was cancelled after just one season. I’m not sure what age demographic they were hoping to capture, and perhaps this was part of its ultimate demise: while the show is family-friendly and whimsical enough to appeal to kids, there are both subtly dirty jokes (such as using the catch-phrase from a feminine hygiene product, or referring to an obsessed tween fangirl as having a “mysterious little black box”) and way too many references to older movies/TV shows for a kid today to even notice, much less understand. (I didn’t even get all of them!) Grillo-Marxuach describes it as a show by nerds, for nerds. While I am not sure that only SF TV/comic book geeks would enjoy the show, certainly having a background in those areas makes it funnier. The show’s concept is somewhere between tongue-in-cheek and an homage to shows and styles that have gone before. They drop references to other works like Tarantino drops f-bombs, both in the dialogue and in the way it’s filmed-sometimes specific shots recreate moments from specific movies or TV shows, while other times the style of an entire episode does (such as “The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown” that played out like an old James Bond movie when a Middle Man from the 1960s was reawaked from cryogenic freezing). Some of the effects hearken back to older shows, such as the terribly obvious projection whenever they are driving the Middle Car, which looks like the old Batman style, and some of the music was intentionally composed to echo another composer’s signature style from a particular movie.
Despite all the external influences, the show maintains its integrity as a unique entity. The Middle Man himself is an upright citizen who acts like a man from another time; he doesn’t cuss, he only drinks milk, and he has an earnest but stilted politeness to his every interaction with others. Some of the show’s humor is derived from the contrast between his Leave It to Beaver style awkwardness and Wendy’s modern looseness with her language and emotions, and some from his use of phrases like “my pretty pony” as expletives.
There are subplots that run through the series regarding Wendy’s potential romance with Tyler, who had been the Middle Man’s original trainee choice (he never got the message to come interview), and the Middle Man’s unfulfilled and haunting romance with Lacey. The show is interesting and engaging from the pilot episode, but it definitely got better once the show got into full swing and the characters and backstory had been established enough for cross-referencing to other episodes and building on the continuing storylines. I was chuckling at the first few episodes; by the end I was shrieking with laughter.
Some of the more interesting episodes included “The Boy-Band Superfan Interrogation,” which was the first point where I really laughed out loud, and “The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation,” where we see just how deep the connection between Lacey and the Middle Man goes. The other standouts for me were the four they chose to put commentary with, all of them creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach plus: episode director Jeremiah Chechik for “The Pilot Episode Sanction”; basically the full cast with “The Cursed Tuba Contingency”; four of the show’s writers for the penultimate episode, “The Clotharian Contamination Protocol”; and Middle Man and Wendy for the final episode, “The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome.”
I liked that they switched up the commentators, because it gave different perspectives on the show. The better two I thought were the pilot and the finale; the director of the pilot talked a lot about the technical aspects of the filming while Grillo-Marxuach spoke about the influences/reasoning behind the show’s creation. Then in the finale, the two stars gave a better take on the character’s developments and the actor’s choices than they were able to during the group cast commentary. The larger groups were funnier, but also less focused, which is why I enjoyed the smaller groups more. Across the commentary, several times they mention proposed storylines that were left on the table, which was some interesting insight into the story development process. They also discuss in the final episode’s commentary some of the places they had considered taking the show if it got a second season, and what was in the works for the 13th episode and season finale that was never made.
Even if the last episode that aired wasn’t written as the finale, it served the purpose admirably with a quick re-write of the last scene (the original ending can be heard in the table read of the episode on the special features disk). Everyone was left in a good place-Wendy and Tyler were together, he had just landed a great job at a company doing Good Work, Wendy was happier than her mom had ever heard her, and even if MM and Lacey hadn’t caved in to their feelings for each other in this universe (yet), we left them together in an alternate universe. Life was ace for everyone. Also it was probably the best episode of the series, which is cool to go out on top but also an indication that this show was still on its way up.
As far as other special features go, the 4th disk in the set is devoted entirely to them, and the list is impressive and diverse:
* Web Featurettes which aired as promos before the first few episodes and cover topics like the stylistic choices for Middle Weapons, a set tour, and the transition from script to comic to TV series
* Alternate scenes (although this turned out to be more sparse than it sounds and was actually a bit disappointing)
* Weekly Javi-casts where Javier Grillo-Marxuach answers fan questions from each week
* The ABC Family Middle Man-ager (teasers for some of the later episode)
* Gag Reel
* Casting Sessions with Natalie Morales (Wendy), Brit Morgan (Lacey), Jake Smollett (Noser), and Mary Pat Gleason (Ida)
* The Wilhelm Scream (explanation of what it is and a montage of all the times it’s used in the series)
* The evolution of the opening title sequence
* Table Read from the final episode
*”Scream Ur Luv 4 Me” music video from Varsity Fanclub (the entirety of the song they sing onstage in “The Boy-Band Superfan Interrogation”)
* PSAs from the Middle Man and Wendy
* Gallery of Photography by Ralph King – stills from the sets
Of these, the Javi-casts and Web Featurettes were my favorites, because they were the most informative about the series, with both behind-the-scenes information and some discussion on background that is never explicitly said in the series. The Wilhelm Scream montage was probably the funniest. The Table Read from the final episode includes the original final scene (which was replaced with more of an epigraph saying “we’re okay here”) and hints yet a little more at what was planned for the 13th episode.
In all, this DVD series is definitely worth the purchase for anyone who enjoyed the show while it was on, and I would recommend it to anyone who considers themselves an SF or comic book geek and doesn’t mind a bit of cuteness in their superhero stories. If you need everything to be like Battlestar Galactica, this probably isn’t for you. But if you enjoy shows like Eureka or Men in Black, then you will find a lot to love about The Middleman.