This past Saturday, I attended a reunion panel for The Middleman, a wonderful show that ran for twelve episodes on ABC Family. TV critics passionately stumped for the show, but the audience never showed up, and the show was canceled before its first season was through. (I blather on a bit about it here.)
Now it was two and a half years later, and C2E2 had brought some folks from the show in for an hourlong Q&A.I scampered into the Q&A a couple of minutes late. My Chicago trip was marred every step of the way by insufficient planning; in this case, I hadn’t realized that C2E2 was far, far, far away from where I was staying in Evanston, so I finally reached the exposition hall with literally minutes to spare.
My heart sank when I saw a line snaking down the hallway and into a panel room, but rose again when I saw that it was for a different panel. The Middleman room was maybe two-thirds full — good for me, but bad for humanity. A comics convention should be packed with Middle-fans, right?
The crowd was heterogeneous: some old, genial types (like me); some intense twenty-something guys — even the ones without costumes were clearly hard-core comic fans; a smattering of pleasant Renn Faire-ish types; and some tween girls who all thought Wendy Watson was awesome.
I got in just as they finished introducing the panel, which was the entire central cast of the show: Natalie Morales (Wendy Watson); Matt Keeslar (The Middleman); Brit Morgan (Lacey Thornfield); Mary Pat Gleason (Ida); and Jake Smollet (Noser). Mark Sheppard (Manservant Neville) was supposed to be moderating the panel, but he’d had some last-minute conflict. The remaining panelists made a running joke of this, riffing off of the zillion other shows Mr. Sheppard gets cast in. (“Oh, he’s chasing people down on Leverage.” “He’s wheeling and dealing in some space western.” And so on.)
So instead, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, AKA “Javi”, AKA the creator and showrunner of The Middleman, took over the moderating duties. He kicked things off by asking the cast to complete the phrase “The Lost Pyramids of…”
“Itzilichlitlichlitzl!” shouted the cast.
Not surprisingly, this had been a vexing piece of pronunciation for the cast to learn. Javi finally recorded an mp3 of himself pronouncing the name properly and sent it to the cast to have them memorize it. The file still lurks on Natalie Morales’s iPod, jumping into its “Shuffle Songs” playlists and sporadically freaking her out.
Javi posed a few questions to the cast, and then went to the audience for questions. He badly wanted to handle the questions “Donahue-style”, weaving through the crowd with a handheld mic to get questions, but there were unfortunately technical limitations, and he was stuck with the usual “line of people behind the microphone in the aisle”.
The audience questions were uniformly good. I wish I could remember them, but I (foolishly) never took out my netbook so I could take notes. Fortunately, at least three people were videoing the entire panel. Surely *somebody* will put a recording online. (Please? Pleeeeease?!) What follows are my (very) vague recollections of the Q&A.
A lot of the questions were about the show-making process. An example: “How many people did you look at for each role, and which of them was hardest to cast?”
Apparently Keeslar was cast from before the beginning. Javi had seen him in The Last Days of Disco, years before the ABC Family nibbles, and said, “Yep, that’s the guy for The Middleman.” Later, he would repeatedly tell ABC Family executives that he wanted the lead to be “a Matt Keeslar type”. They finally suggested back to Javi, “Why don’t we just make an offer to Matt Keeslar?” Javi mused upon this simple wisdom and quickly agreed.
Sidebar: Javi had nothing but the best things to say about ABC Family. Any time an audience member posed a question that was even *faintly* redolent of blaming the network for cancelling a good show, Javi would catch them up short, correct that misapprehension, and then move on to answering the question.
As for the collaboration with the network, it turned out the network had strong, strong opinions about initial casting (for example, “make the heroine Latina” — see below) and the overall look of the show. Javi was happy to cede that ground to the network. They got on the same page with initial casting, and then later on, the show cleared stuff like costume choices and set designs with the network.
Outside of that, their freedom was rather astonishing. The writers were free to write the show they wanted to write. And that’s really what mattered to Javi; on-set, he told the cast, “Do whatever you like, but don’t change a word of the dialog.” And if you’ve watched the show at all, you probably have a notion of how machine-tooled the dialog is, and how unchangeable it is. Beyond that, the actors were free.
So everyone had the creative freedom they wanted: the network got a shiny-looking, diverse show; the writers got to write their crazy screwball sci-fi comedy; the actors got to do anything they wanted, just so long as they said the right words in the right order. Everybody wins!
One person asked, “If the show had been on a larger network — FOX or something — could the show have found a larger audience? or was it always destined to be a niche thing?” Nobody really addressed that question, just because they couldn’t conceive of the show being on another network. Ms. Morales pointed out that FOX would have cancelled them in two episodes. They all said they wouldn’t have had nearly the same creative freedom on a larger broadcast network. Javi summed it up: “If the show hadn’t been on ABC Family, it wouldn’t be the show that you love.”
And yes, ABC Family did cancel The Middleman. Javi addressed this with (of all things) a line from The Commitments:
"Sure, we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable -- this way it's poetry."
That nearly made me cry.
This is partly because I am a great big wuss, partly because I’m such a fan of the show, but mainly because there really is something poetic about making something beautiful and then moving on. It’s heartbreaking that we got no more than we got, but how wonderful that we got it at all.
Returning to the topic at hand: Matt Keeslar was pretty much their one and only choice for the title character.
For the lead, Wendy Watson, ABC Family wanted a Latina heroine. Every time I’m reminded of this fact, I do a mental double-take. One expects networks to go the other way with their notes: “Ah… we’re not really targetting an ‘urban’ demographic with this property. Could you maybe re-cast this role to be more… ‘conventionally-upscale’?” Television — especially broadcast and basic cable — is consistently, blindingly, eerily Caucasian. The friends on Friends were all white people, and they largely encountered other white people, and they lived in New York City. (For those of you unfamiliar with NYC, that last clause was the punch line.) It’s laudable that a network — even a tiny little network like ABC Family — tried to correct for that in some small way.
In the original comic, Wendy Watson was a “corn-fed Iowa redhead”. Javi at first rebelled against the network note to make her anything but that. (“But why? You’re Latino yourself! Shouldn’t this make you happy?”) Most Latino characters on TV reinforced stereotypes that Javi personally detested. He referenced a list of stereotypes that Natalie Morales had mentioned earlier in the panel (when she talked about roles she typically went out for): “I don’t say ‘Papi’, I hate *HATE* salsa music….” Then he digressed, talking about waking up every morning in Puerto Rico to the oh-so-cheery salsa radio station. (He did a couple of quick salsa steps. I had never seen salsa danced with such bitter irony.)
“I like synth music written by Germans,” he concluded irritably.
Back to the topic at hand: Javi and the network came to an agreement that Wendy would be LINO, or “Latina in Name Only”. (Javi has used this term on the Minuteman commentaries.) No “Papi”, no salsa, lots of comic-book fannishness. And this was okay by ABC family — they got to strike a blow for diversity in TV casting (and hooray for that, by god), and Javi got to avoid perpetuating irritating racial stereotypes.
(Interestingly, the show would go on to lean a bit on Natalie’s Latina-ness as it went on. “I’m Cuban!” might be my favorite throwaway line in the whole series.)
In any case, the initial casting calls for Wendy Watson included (seemingly) every Latina actress in L. A., but it was quickly whittled down to two actresses. Apparently Ms. Morales now feels a bit awkward when she runs into the woman she beat out for the role.
Noser had the biggest “cattle call” casting efforts, as ABC Family had no idea at first what kind of Noser they were looking for. “But in the end, Jake Smollet would not be denied.” I don’t remember much about what they said w/r/t casting for Lacey and Ida, though the second choice for Lacey wound up cast as the first fish victim in “The Flying Fish Zombification”.
There was another good question about what initially drew the cast to the roles. Ms. Morales got the “It was paying work!” answer out of the way first. Ms. Morgan mentioned that it had been absolutely wonderful *finally* to read for a part that wasn’t either (1) the dumb blonde or (2) the first hapless victim in a horror movie.
After the first couple of questions, there were only one or two people in the question line. At that point, a question actually occurred to me, so I squeezed out of my seat, got in line, and stood around nervously for several minutes.
The question I babbled out (so, so nervous) was pretty much the same one I asked about LOST for Mo Ryan’s podcast: “This is for anybody who wants to weigh in: say in the near future, a showrunner picks up the DVDs for The Middleman and watches all the episodes. What do you want them to take away from that experience? What influence do you want the show to have?”
Honestly, I only vaguely recall their replies. I was sort of a deer in headlights. Partly it was “OMG OMG JAVI AND ALL THE ACTORS ARE LOOKING AT ME BE COOL MAN BE COOL.” Mainly I felt nervous because I’d heard so, so many stories about idiotic fans asking boneheaded, insulting, or incomprehensible questions at comic-convention Q&As. Even after I was done talking, I had residual anxiety: “Okay. Didn’t go off on a fifteen-minute personal anecdote about chronic-pain issues.” N.B.: some guy really did that while asking a ‘question’ at SDCC. “Didn’t try and fail to be funny. Didn’t say anything creepily sexual. Asked a question that isn’t answered on the DVD commentary. Okay. I think we did alright.”
Meanwhile, the panel had a pretty good discussion going. I vaguely recall Matt Keeslar talked about how The Middleman had smart characters. I think Brit Morgan alluded to how nice it was to have have two female characters who were friends: not ‘frenemies’, not cruel acquaintances who did bitchy soap-opera machinations to each other, but friends.
Mainly I remember that Javi initially held out the mic for me, and I didn’t realize I was supposed to take it from him, and he told me verbally I could take the mic, and I was all, “PETER DON’T PANIC MAN JUST TAKE THE MIC BE COOL”.
There was a question about the characters’ favorite moments from the show. Mr. Keeslar said it was the movie-theater scenes between the Middleman and Lacey. The entire audience “d’aww”ed as one — which is not surprising, as those scenes were the core of the Middeman/Lacey relationship. Like the relationship, they are tentatively hopeful but at the same time melancholy.
There were questions about the actors’ favorite catchphrases (Mr. Keeslar: “‘Flaming pork buns’. Or anything off of a Chinese menu, really.”) and their least-favorite tongue-twisting lines (for Ms. Morales, a short line about [I think] pimp-slapping; for Ms. Morgan, a fairly long speech about female empowerment).
There was a question about what sort of things they might have done in future seasons of The Middleman, had they been renewed. Javi talked about his pet notion of starting season two as if it were season *seven*, with a major jump ahead in time and plot, and never a word of explanation. He also alluded to killing off the Middleman so that the alternative-world Middleman could come and take his place.
SPOILERS FOR THE COMIC SERIES:
Apparently, when the TV show was just about to premiere, the comic series killed off Matt Keeslar’s character. Javi felt compelled to make assurances to Mr. Keeslar: “This isn’t like that Dick Wolf thing where he writes death scenes for all his characters and keeps them in a vault to use as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations. It’s really just a coincidence.”
A few other random observations:
- Brit Morgan talked at Amy-Sherman-Palladino-esque speeds; eventually Javi took away her Red Bull and drank the rest of it himself.
- A tween Latina girl dressed like Wendy Watson came up to ask a question in the Q&A, which was a nice moment of ‘yes, this show was good for humanity’.
- There may be a “Jolly Fats Wehawkin Employment Agency” T-shirt available on cafepress. The woman who designed the shirt may have been sitting next to me at the Q&A. Javi may have ensured that the original key art for the faux temp agency somehow found its way to her. I can neither confirm nor deny any of these things.
- Apparently I am not the only viewer who loves Ida’s groundless and insistent conviction that Wendy is a pothead. (At one table read, Mary Pat had to ask a staffer why everyone laughed at Ida’s reference to “4:20”.)
Eventually, the panel finished up. I think it actually ran twenty minutes longer than scheduled. Javi and the cast booked it to the autograph booths. I pondered going by there, but I figured the interaction would just feel weird. Plus I hadn’t packed my DVDs of the show.
So, off I went to the next panel, that quote about bands and poetry still rattling around in my head.
 “I love Gilmore Girls — they talk like Puerto Ricans!” — Javi. The fact that Javi was evidently raised by people who talk like Rory and Lorelei might explain a lot about how The Middleman sounds.
 It’s kind of bizarre that this is a show whose panel audience included both tween girls and old men as die-hard fans, and yet not in the creepy way you might fear.