Middleman review: “The Pilot Episode Sanction”


Over the past decade or so, cable networks have been slowly figuring out that as long as the broadcast networks are going to cling to the outmoded Fall-to-Spring television schedule, they should counter program with new scripted shows in the summer. Several of the cable channels have realized that a different type of program is called for in the summer – lighter, bubblier, more fun and at least a little family-friendly.

USA has been doing this for years, with Psych, Monk, and now Burn Notice. Even SciFi does it with the excellent Eureka. Now ABC Family is getting in on the fun with their new show, The Middleman.

I’d been looking forward to this premiere for a couple of weeks now, getting clued in from some reviewers I like and (I’m a little embarrassed to admit) ads in comic books. Based on the Viper Comics title of the same name, The Middleman is similar in tone and substance to Men in Black. A secret organization, advanced weaponry and technology, a recruit plucked from the general populace when she shows great acumen under fire, and aliens. And not just aliens: monsters, mad scientists, evil magicians…the gamut.

Created and executive produced by Javier Grillo-Marxuach – who created the comic along with artist Les McClaine – this show is a *blast*.

We meet and learn just about everything we need to know about Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales) in the first two minutes.

She’s on the phone with her mother, telling her about her job at a lab working with the top scientific minds in the country. She gets another call and puts her mother on hold: Wendy’s working reception. Back to her mom: “lots of art school grads get science jobs.” Another call, and in the lab behind her we see an explosion and a lot of smoke. Back to mom: “Yes mother. I am still dating that guy. And his name is Ben. No. He is not a homosexual. He’s in film school.”

By the time a giant, tentacled monster breaks through the glass behind Wendy, we’ve gotten to know a lot about her. And now we learn the rest. Unfazed, unworried, she tries to run by gets snagged by a tentacle. She grabs a letter opener and stabs at it.

The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) arrives to save her – not without a bit of humor about whom he’s saving – and that’s that. Wendy is convinced to keep the truth to herself and The Middleman disappears. I should point out here that I momentarily forgot I was watching ABC Family when Wendy asked “what about the hentai tentacle monster?”

The Middleman isn’t necessarily the nicest guy, however. He does steal Wendy’s Zippo (a memento of her father who disappeard mysteriously) and use it to frame Wendy for the “gas main” accident at the lab. This makes her unemployable by any of the temp agencies in town and she’s forced to turn to the Jolly Fats Wehawkin Temp Agency – a front for the Middleman and his sidekick, Ida (Mary Pat Gleason) the very grumpy android.

Once she’s passed her series of increasingly frightening tests – typing, IQ, polygraph, stress, some kind of crazy-helmet-and-video, ESP – she finds out the truth. This leads to this great exchange:

Middleman: You ever read comic books?

Wendy: Yeah. I think Jughead’s a real hoot…Powers, Fell, Astro City, The Spirit, X-Men – old school, not Ultimate – Mouse Guard, and the Flash.”

Middleman: Barry Allen or Wally West?

Wendy: Do you want me to leave?

Ah, nothing quite hotter than a super-cute girl who digs comics.

On the Job

Understandably upset that she was set up, she takes off. Goes home, puts on some emo music to paint by…then turns on something that actually rocks and paints the tentacle monster. Realizing she’s got no job, no prospects, and lives in a world where aliens, monsters, and mad scientists exist, she meets her new boss at the crime scene.

Someone’s bumping off all the mobsters in town. Some careful detective work – they find a banana peel and then analyze it, and if you don’t know what kind of villain we’re dealing with, you haven’t been following along – leads them to the culprits. Off to Simionics LTD where they meet Jack Bauer’s ever-competent Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub). I always figured she’d be a mad scientist. And that’s surely what she is. Wendy puts it best: “Genius primates. Because that’s a problem that needed solving.”

One of the gorillas has “gotten lose” and is killing off all the mobsters in town. In the end, poor Spanky the Gorilla is less Gorilla Grodd and more unwiling pawn of a mad scientist. Chloe couldn’t really help it, though. Every year, the government gives her less and less money for her research. She needs to complete her research so she can realize her dream “to build an army of genetically engineered super-apes to take over the world.”

One completely non-gratuitous Planet of the Apes reference later and the case is wrapped up.

This show’s a blast. Kid-friendly, yet not kid-only.

This is about the closest I’ve seen to a live-action comic book in years. It’s funny, witty, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and doesn’t slow down from start to finish. My one complaint is that Matt Keeslar might need to step up his aerobic routine. He’s running out of breath on some of the more word-packed lines. And they *are* word-packed. Like Gilmore Girls x 2.

All in all, a fun show that I recommend as light summer filler.