This is the first article in an occasional series called either Now Streaming or Not Streaming, depending on the availability of the television shows or films I’ll be discussing. In addition to discussing the works, I’ll also note their availability. The series also ties into an issue of the Hugo Award winning fanzine Journey Planet I’m currently editing that will run appreciations of more than thirty television shows that were cancelled within two seasons. I start this series with The Middleman (which is covered in Journey Planet by The Middleman screenwriter Margaret Dunlap).
On June 16 2008, Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s series The Middleman debuted on ABC Family and aired a dozen episodes before disappearing on September 1, possibly because nobody knew that ABC Family was airing original programming, or they just assumed anything that was airing on the channel was aimed at families with young children. Unfortunately, that meant that a lot of people missed out on an excellent send-up of comic books that paid intelligent homage to pop culture. I was unaware of the show until Grillo-Marxuach was invited to be a guest of honor at Capricon 32 in Chicago, when I picked up the series and was blown away by it.
Starring Natalie Morales as a young artist working a series of dead end jobs and Matt Keeslar as the titular Middleman whose mandate is to protect the people from threats infra, extra, and juxta-terrestrial. Other characters include Wendy’s roommate, Lacey Thornfield (Brit Morgan), a confrontational spoken-word performance artist, Noser (Jake Smollett), the musician who lives in the hallway outside Wendy and Lacey’s apartment, and Ida (Mary Pat Gleason), an android whose appearance processor got stuck on domineering schoolmarm version 2.0.
Each episode stands on its own and has a creature-of-the-week feel to it, although there are running jokes throughout the series, and eventually Brendan Hines and Mark Sheppard are introduced as Tyler Ford and Manservant Neville, respectively and have story arcs that run through multiple episodes. Other recurring characters include Roxy Wasserman (Elaine Hendrix), a reformed succubus and informant, and High Aldwin (Alan Smyth), an alien potentate. Various tenants of Wendy’s apartment building also appear throughout.
It is clear that the production team for The Middleman is made up of fans of pop culture. Episodes have frequent references to popular films, often paying homage through the use of names of characters and locations. For instance, in “The Ectoplasmic Panhellenic Investigation,” there are references to Ray Parker Jr. Avenue, the Egon Spengler Award, and Reitman University as they offer tribute to Ghostbusters.
In addition, the writing is crisp and fast paced and seems designed to be quotable, allowing fans of the series to identify each other while also giving them a chance to introduce the series to potential viewers who haven’t heard about it. While the scripts lean heavily of pop culture and science fictional references, those aspects of the scripts are merely window dressing to fun adventures that spoofs a variety of secret agent films and television series. In some ways the Middleman, who claims to work for a secretive organization referred to as O2STK, is a more tongue-in-cheek version of the Men in Black.
The characters make frequent references to comic books and quote from films from The Godfather to Planet of the Apes to Star Wars. In addition to allowing the viewers to recognize these references, they also add to the verisimilitude of the series since this type of allusion to films litters standard conversation. Furthermore, each episode includes the Wilhelm Scream at some point, to the extent that the DVD set includes an entire feature about the sound effect.
In the first episode, the Middleman tells Wendy that “specificity is the soul of all good communication” and throughout the series, the occasional tag lines that show up to indicate where and when action is taking place support this assertion, with statements like “The illegal sublet Wendy shares with another young, photogenic artist. 11:20 PM Taipei Standard Time” flashing across the screen.
The series clearly has a television budget when it comes to special effects, but their awareness of the limitations of that budget also shows. The fact that The Middleman is so whimsical means that they can make fun of those limitations. In fact, the CGI is most noticeable when the script doesn’t call attention to it and the viewer is supposed to take it most seriously as in “The Accidental Occidental Conception,” in which the Middleman and Wendy find themselves battling an earth elemental.
Perhaps most importantly, Grillo-Marxuach has created a television series that it fun to watch. Although the stakes of each episode are high, the viewer knows that the Middleman and Wendy will triumph in the end, just a surely as Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 would defeat the agents of KAOS every week. (And note that recurring The Middleman actress Elaine Hendrix played Agent 66 in the 1995 reboot of Get Smart.) The cast is all charismatic and they appear to be having a great deal of fun, perhaps none more than the late Mary Pat Gleason, whose sarcastic Ida steals every scene she’s in.
Though the series was cancelled after only a dozen episodes, Grillo-Marxuach also published a comic version that used much of the same material, although some issues expanded on the television series and eventually an issue served to connect the original comic and the show and explain the differences and resolve the disparities between the original comic and the decisions made when bringing it to the screen. Furthermore, for those who couldn’t get enough between the dozen episodes and the five comics, the cast reunited at Comic Cons in 2009 and 2014 to do table reads of the scripts for the fourth and fifth comics, both of which can be found on-line.
The Middleman is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Microsoft, but must be purchased/rented on all of those services. DVDs can be purchased.