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  • Bluejack
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Publisher: Bluejack

January, 2009 : Review:

The Middleman

Review of Season One

The Middleman television series is adapted from the comic series by the same name which was created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine. Grillo-Marxuach�s The Middleman takes the parodic/comedic mode of the superhero genre in a series that occupies the space between Men In Black and The Tick. The first season aired on ABC Family during the spring and summer of 2008.

The MiddlemanFighting Evil So You Don�t Have To

Starring Natalie Morales as Wendy Watson and Matt Kesslar as the Middleman, the series opens with Wendy Watson working as a receptionist for a genetics firm when an experiment goes terribly wrong and a tentacled monster escapes to run amok. Watson calmly responds to the threat until the Middleman (looking like he stepped out of the 1950s with his Eisenhower jacket and gee-golly straight-talking) arrives and vanquishes the monster.

After being fired from the temp agency that placed her at the receptionist job, Watson is recruited by the Jolly Fats Wehawken Temp Agency, actually a front for the organization of the Middleman. Wendy Watson (called Dub-Dub or Dubbie) is a wise-cracking, geek-reference-making graphic artist specializing in semi-abstract impressionist painting. She works part-time to support her art career and lives with fellow artist Lacey Thornfield (a confrontational spoken-word performance artist) in an illegal sub-let (the only way they can both work part-time and afford to live the way they do). In classic superhero tradition, Wendy has to balance her work life saving the world alongside the Middleman with her home life and friendship with Lacey and her other artist-friends as well as her romantic misadventures.

Kesslar�s Middleman is a comedy straight man if there ever was one—he never reveals his real name, drinks only milk, and he believes that cursing weakens the mind and the spirit. The Middleman is an unrepentant goody two-shoes but is in no way a pushover. Paired with the ironic (not cynical!) Wendy Watson, the two of them use "weapons and gadgets and things" to fight "threats extra, infra, and juxta-terrestrial." They navigate a bizarre world of hyper-intelligent gangster gorillas, sensei-kidnapping Luchadores, world-ending tubas and Reformed Succubi-turned-fashion-designers. Yes, it�s that zany.

Pop-Culture Much?

For each episode, there tends to be an ur-text that acts as the source for most of the pop-culture references and often an inspiration for the plot. But rather than just riffing on or parodying its source material, The Middleman tends to take genre elements (like vampires or kung fu masters or zombies) and push them into the land of the hilarious, like literally flying (floating really) fish whose bite turns victims into zombies craving the flesh, not of humans, but of trout! (in "The Flying Fish Zombification").

Wendy uses her pop-culture savvy to help prepare her for her adventures, bringing acute genre awareness to the story, which makes The Middleman a geeky show for geeks (or really, anyone who gets the references—you certainly don�t have to be a geek to watch and enjoy Die Hard or Ghostbusters).

Part of the show�s charm comes from its reliably amusing captions for scene-changes. Wendy and Lacey�s apartment isn�t just announced as "Wendy�s apartment", it�s "The illegal sub-let Wendy shares with another photogenic young artist." As the show continues, these captions become running jokes unto themselves. Each episode tends to have its own internal logic and joke cycle for these captions. "The Clotharian Contamination Protocol" has captions referring to "the inevitable detonation," including this one:

Fatboy Tower. Executive Boardroom. Blissfully ignorant of the inevitable detonation.

The Middleman uses its genre awareness and loving parody pop-culture savvy to supplement the procedural, case-of-the-week reactive (super) heroes approach. Snappy dialogue and strong comedic timing highlights the places where superheroics and life alike are quite laughable (especially in relation to one another). It follows the serial-episodic model of shows like Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where individual episodes stand alone, but the interpersonal dynamics build steadily over the season.

One of the most notable episodes of the season is "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown," where a string of crimes reminiscent of both Andy Warhol and a classic Middle-villain prompts Ida (the Middle-Organization's support android stuck in the form of a cranky middle-aged schoolmarm) to bring back the Middleman from 1969, a James-Bond-style womanizing Sexual Revolution Middleman played by Hercules/Andromeda star Kevin Sorbo. The episode highlights the differences between 1969 Middleman�s gender politics (which were at the time "revolutionary" and "liberal") with Kesslar�s Middleman�s 1950s-era gender politics.

Kesslar�s paradigm emerges as the more favorable, due to his silent but strident feminist support of Wendy Watson to do whatever she wants, in being a Middle-person or in seeking pleasure with her boyfriend. The Middleman has strong threads of the super-spy genre as well as superheroes (given that the two have long been intertwined), and "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown" takes Connery-era Bond films head-on, with a more direct critique than is seen in many of the other episodes. The episode comments on the gender politics of the age, as well as the Orientalism, fashion and the general cultural paradigm. With the final turn of the episode, The Middleman outs itself as a third-wave feminist show, without advertising it loudly.

TV for the TiVo generation

The Middleman is a classic example of what media scholar Steven Johnson (of Everything Bad Is Good For You) calls "Most Repeatable Programming," where each subsequent viewing of an episode unveils more jokes, more references, more ways in which The Middleman is in sophisticated dialogue with popular culture references of the past few decades. The Middleman is a show made for the TiVo/DVR model of television viewing, with lightning-fast dialogue and quick references—this is a show where the ability to go back a few seconds right away to re-play a joke isn�t just useful, it�s nearly essential to fully appreciate the show�s merits.

The Middleman speaks most directly to the cultural references of viewers from Generation X (as the creator himself is), but appeals cross-demographically to those who cherish the cultural properties lovingly parodied by the show (Die Hard, Dune, Escape From New York, Dracula, etc.).

The show is an iconic representation of high context media. Any given episode has dozens of popular culture references to not only its ur-text but other properties in dialogue with that ur-text and in the sub-genre. One of the primary forms of supplementary content offered by the creator was a running list of pop-culture references in each episode, available at the shows� official blog, the Middleblog.

A good parody is both a commentary on the genre which it lampoons and a valid instance of that genre, but The Middleman nimbly combines so many different elements and modes that a viewer not already adept in genre-mash or less-than-amused by heightened dialogue and intentionally B-movie-level special effects might be turned off. This could help explain the show�s lack of breakout success despite critical acclaim.

Gender and Race

With Wendy Watson in place as the POV character for the series, the show escapes the charges of sexism and racism often leveled at many instances of the superhero genre. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is known to have said that she would not watch a film unless it had:

1. At least two female characters, who...
2. talk to each other about...
3. something besides a man. (Bechdel in Ulaby, 2008)

This became known as the "Bechdel Rule." The Middleman has frequent scenes where Wendy and Lacey talk about anything and everything roommate-best-friends would talk about, which sometimes but not always includes men. As it also portrays a strong Latina without ever getting close to making Morales� character into the Fiery Latina stereotype, this prompted NPR writer Neda Ulaby to coin the Morales Rule:

1. Nobody calls anybody Papi.
2. No dancing to salsa music.
3. No gratuitous Spanish. (Ibid.)

The Middleman engages with a genre often criticized for sexism and racism and presents a strong female of color in a leading role. When her race or gender comes up, it is not tokenism or made into a joke at her expense, but rather a way for her to prove herself as humorous, competent, or both. If the genre conventions of the episode/threat put her in a situation to be objectified, she always has a snarky comment on hand to make it clear that she�s not passive or un-aware of the social norms going on. Misogyny and gender-based exploitation is lampooned along with all of the other ridicule-worthy parts of the world.

The Middleman may not really fit in at ABC Family, but most likely landed there because it was easier to get a primetime short-season run on a cable sub-network than on one of the bigger cable channels or network television. The downside of its pop-culture saturated high-context humor is that it is less-than-ideally-accessible to audiences ignorant of the material it pokes respectful fun at, and since it was a fish-out-of-water show on a lower-tier cable network imprint, the ratings were never that stellar. The show�s fate is currently unknown, though a DVD release of the first season may sell well, along the lines of genre cult hits such as Firefly.

Re-Cap

Highly post-modern, The Middleman is a full-on pastiche, a bricolage of pop-culture references made manifest into a TV show that doesn�t just nod at its predecessors, it weaves them into the fabric of its being, connecting dots of film, TV, comics and more to create a series that stands at the very center of the overlapping cultures that are variously called fan cultures, geeks, film buffs, and more.

If you�re comfortable quoting Ghostbusters, Die Hard, Buffy, or Dune, or Every Kung Fu Movie Ever, are ambivalent about James Bond films because you love super-spies and explosions but hate the misogyny, or are a fan of either Men In Black or The Tick, do yourself a favor and watch The Middleman.

Works Referenced

Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today�s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Riverhead.

Ulaby, Neda. 2008. "Parsing the Bechdel Rule and Writing a Few of our Own."


Copyright © 2009, Michael Underwood. All Rights Reserved.

About Michael Underwood

Michael Underwood fences, dances, teaches, and writes. He's a 21st Century Renaissance man, but sadly, is not landed nobility with a disposable inheritance.

He holds a M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon and is a graduate of the 2007 Clarion West Writer's Workshop.

COMMENTS!

Jan 7, 06:59 by IROSF
Have you seen this show? Tell us what you think about it.

Article is here.
Jan 8, 20:20 by Doug Potter
Many will ask why one would spend the time and effort to review a tv show that nobody watched and will likely not have a second season. The answer is, of course, the inspiration of the show itself.
I don't know where I saw the promo for the Middleman, but it wasn't on ABC Family. Promos have caught my interest before, usually in a " That looks interesting" way. The Middleman promo had me think " I have to see this!" followed by a scramble to the internet to see where it was on the schedule. What I found was an hour of laugh out loud without prompting from a laugh track.
Underwood is dead on about the quality of the writing, but doesn't mention the casting aspect of the Middleman. On any network show Natalie Morales would be the friend and Brit Morgan would play Wendy Watson. Matt Kessler would be replaced by a twenty something actor to try to appeal to as young a demographic as possible. It's a miracle that a show this bright and original saw the light of the boob tube. If it doesn't see a second season I'll always be grateful for that.
I can't decide if this or Pushing Daisies was my favorite tv of last year, but I can hope that, like the team that created Daisies, the creators of Middleman will hit us with a new effort soon.

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