The Middleman has gone through quite the journey. Originally pitched as a television series by former Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the series failed to catch the eye of television executives. Instead, in 2005 The Middleman found life as a comic book series, in which Grillo-Marxuach’s outlandish ideas could be realized without concern of a TV budget.
The comic series did well enough to garner the attention of at least some of those formerly naysaying execs, and now The Middleman is back where its creator always intended it to be: television. ABC Family picked up the series even despite its penchant for expensive monsters, and recently they released the first episode as a free download on iTunes.
The plot, as far as I’m aware, is straight out of the comic. As the pilot begins, 20-something art student Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales) is temping at a laboratory wherein odd experiments are occurring. As Wendy talks with her disapproving mother on the telephone, a giant tentacle monster bursts through the glass behind her and attacks. Wendy, being the jaded sort, doesn’t react as many might – that is, freeze up in terror – and instead fights back as though monstrous attacks are an everyday occurrence.
Step in the nameless Middleman (Matt Keeslar), who quickly dispatches the monster and easily convinces the cool-tempered Wendy to lie about what she saw. The Middleman also notices how unfazed Wendy is by the whole ordeal and decides that she is to be his new sidekick, a Middleman in training. Arranging it so that Wendy cannot find temp work anywhere else in the city, the Middleman forces her to come to his fake Jolly Fats Wehawkin Temp Agency so as to test her and then convince her to join his team.
The plot from there moves into over-the-top comic book fare as the new team of the Middleman and Wendy seek out whoever it is killing gangsters around town. Along the way we meet Wendy’s boyfriend and her roommate, a robot disguised as a frumpy older woman, super-intelligent apes, and 24‘s fantastic Mary Lynn Rajskub as a scientist with ulterior motives. Throw in an extended black and white sequence parodying the spy TV series of the ‘60s and you should have total gold.
Call it a shaky start, but what I got instead was total bronze. While the ideas behind the series have the potential to be something fantastic, a lot of the time watching the pilot I felt as though the show wasn’t quite there. Clearly intended to be a parody of comic book tropes and the old Batman-type TV series that they birthed, the show itself isn’t quite up to the task of referencing those series without sometimes seeming like one itself. Filmed in the standard low rent ABC Family style, it’s hard to laugh with The Middleman if you’re not sure if the effects are purposefully shoddy or if it’s just all that they could afford.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to like. The two leads are well cast, especially relative newcomer Natalie Morales, an Anne Hathaway meets Tina Fey type who does well with her sarcastic lines and is otherwise convincingly nonchalant. And when the jokes work, they’re certainly quite funny – my favorite being a running gag involving Wendy’s dirty mouth. It’s just that when TV history is filled with television shows as sparklingly witty as Gilmore Girls, it’s necessary to really step it up if you want to entertain viewers accustomed to smarter writing and quicker performances. The Middleman only succeeds in doing so half the time with the rest of the time coming off as trying far too hard to make us laugh.
It’s difficult to judge an entire TV series by its pilot. For every Lost or Pushing Daisies that fires on all cylinders right out of the gate, there’s also a Buffy the Vampire Slayer that doesn’t find its legs for at least a season or a Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that goes downhill from a great first episode. Whether The Middleman is destined to be a Buffy or a Studio 60, only time will tell. For now, based only on the pilot, my opinion is that the show has potential but is currently neither brilliant or horrible. The Middleman instead sits firmly in the middle.
– , BuddyTV Staff Writer
(Photo courtesy of ABC Family)