When Dan and I were spitballing about doing another short-lived show for Eventually Supertrain, I suggested The Middleman.
You see, back in the long long ago of the 2000s, I was LiveJournal friends with Javier Grillo-Marxuach (he was super cool and friended lots of people; I was not special), who’d been a writer on Lost, and at the time he was working on his own show based on a graphic novel he’d done with Les McClaine. Fast forward to the present day and I recently rediscovered my old LiveJournal friend on Twitter (turns out he’s still super cool and follows lots of people; I continue to be not special), which reminded me of the show.
Now, I’m pretty open about not being the biggest comic book/graphic novel fan. Not that I think they’re lesser forms of literature or anything, it’s just that for the most part, they’re not my bag. And that’s cool. But I watched The Middleman during its run mostly because I wanted to support my internet friend.
Turns out I loved it. Sadly, like most things I love, it only lasted twelve episodes. But they were twelve fabulous episodes.
The Middleman is about, well, the Middleman (Matt Keeslar), his Middle Apprentice Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), and sassy and surly robot Ida (Mary Pat Gleason), who are all employed by a super secret organization intent on keeping the world safe from the bizarre, comic book-type evils that the general public know nothing about. To this end, Wendy keeps her job secret from her best friend and roommate Lacey Thornfield (Brit Morgan), her eventual boyfriend Tyler Ford (Brendan Hines), friend Noser (Jake Smollett), enemy Pip (Drew Tyler Bell), and fellow building resident and mostly friend even though he has a weird fixation with phallic sculpture Joe 90 (Sean Davis). The Middleman and Wendy are occasionally helped by Roxy Wasserman (Elaine Hendrix), a reformed succubus who runs a half-way house for other succubi under the guise of a fashion house, and Wendy’s boyfriend Tyler later gets a job from Manservant Neville (Mark Sheppard), the CEO of Fatboy Industries, whose logo is all over the show and which I feel would have been a bigger deal had the show continued.
The pilot episode wastes no time introducing us to the characters and the world they live in. Wendy, an artist, is making the ends meet through various temp jobs. It’s at one of these temp jobs as a receptionist for some sort of science lab that Wendy is introduced to the Middleman, who comes to save the day when one of the science experiments goes rogue. He notes how Wendy holds her own against the creature, which leads to her recruitment as the Middle Apprentice.
Obviously, Wendy can’t go into details about this temp job, which leads to some tension with her confrontational spoken word performance artists roommate/bestie Lacey. Lacey also has a different kind of tension with Wendy’s boss, one of the romantic variety. Meanwhile, Wendy apparently meets her soulmate in musician Tyler, who we find out was also considered for the job of Middle Apprentice. It looks like they’re destined to be star-crossed when Tyler gets two day amnesia, forgetting Wendy exists, but in his pursuit of regaining his memory, they’re reunited. He’s an improvement over Wendy’s initial boyfriend, who videotapes himself dumping her for his film class and whom the Middleman accurately calls a doorknob.
It’s very much a bad guy of the week show, typically with a personal life B-story. However, the two things I love about this show is that a) the bad guys are so specifically shitty and their plans are elegant in their sheer simplicity and b) something from the B story almost always plays into the A story. As I said multiple times while discussing the show with Dan, nothing is wasted.
For example, in the episode “The Manacoid Teleportation Conundrum”, Lacey urges Wendy to deal with her feelings about ex-boyfriend Ben, who’s just landed a movie deal thanks to his break-up video going viral. Much of Lacey’s advice comes from a television therapist, who later plays into the main story in a big way. And the villain in the episode? His whole motivation is to avenge his father, who died because of his own stupidity. Like I said. Specifically shitty.
The show’s universe is also rich in history and pop culture references. The Middleman is just one in a long line of Middlemen and as a result, has acquired much in the way of intel, a wide variety of weapons, and all sorts of random items. But with all of that inherited experience and an android that’s been there for generations, not even Ida knows who the Middleman works for. The mysterious organization is referred to by Middleman and Ida as O2STK…Organization Too Secret To Know.
As for the pop culture references, there are so many, it’s a challenge to catch them all. “The Clothorian Contamination Protocol” is filled with Die Hard references; “The Ectoplasmic Panhellenic Investigation” features several Ghostbusters references; “The Cursed Tuba Contingency” features a mix of references to the Titanic and to Westerns; Noser is a wealth of song lyrics; and there are Dr. Who references throughout which I never would have known if I didn’t cover this show with Dan.
With only twelve episode, the show doesn’t have a long list of guest stars, but it did land some stellar talent including Alan Smyth, Vincent M. Ward, Lance Barber; former Growing Pains and current Critical Role star Ashley Johnson; Todd Stashwick, Michael Oosterum, Stephen Sowan; 24 alum Mary Lynn Rajskub; Joey Kern, Jer Adrianne Lelliot, James Hsu; Stargate fave Eric Avari and Stargate: Atlantis fave Mark Dacascos; Cassandra Jean Amell, Gideon Emery, Lorena Gale; Eden Sher who would go on to star in another middle show, The Middle; Rob Nagle, Leland Crook; (in an unfortunate case of a terrible person being perfect in a role) Hercules vet Kevin Sorbo; Heidi Marnhout, Steve Valentine; and future Big Bang Theory regular Kevin Sussman.
As funny as this show is (and it is laugh out loud), I love the heart it has as well. It’s not just straight action and one-liners (not that there’s anything wrong with that; I love that shit, too). There’s also an emotional depth to the show, particularly when it comes to the relationships between the characters.
Obviously the main relationship is between Wendy and the Middleman. They’re boss and employee, mentor and mentee, but that all evolves into a very strong friendship and platonic bond. In a refreshing twist, there’s nothing even hinted at being romantic between them (at least in these twelve episodes; who knows what they would have done to piss me off down the road). We don’t need them to be quietly pining to smooch each other to know that they care about each other deeply. No doubt accelerated by the life or death situations they find themselves in, the Middleman and Wendy develop this really lovely relationship that’s supportive and honest, but not without its issues because they are different people. The Middleman rarely swears, drinks milk, and resorts to violence only when necessary. Wendy is pretty much the opposite. Usually the friction in their relationship comes from the two of them approaching a problem from different directions. However, in one episode, we actually see the Middleman get jealous of Wendy because she had a better training session with the great Sensei Ping (Mark Dacascos), which is especially needling given the fact that Wendy and Sensei Ping not getting along when they first met led to a whole boatload of trouble with some luchadores. Trust me. It makes sense.
But amidst the good-natured bantering and occasional bickering, we’re also gifted incredibly sweet moments between the two characters, like Wendy telling the Middleman that he’s the closest thing she’s had to a father figure since her own father disappeared under as yet unexplained circumstances. They’re also very supportive of each other and even the Middleman was there to offer violence when Wendy’s art was plagiarized.
The show also provides a solid friendship between Wendy and Lacey. I fully admit that I found Lacey a little annoying in the first few episodes, but she quickly grew on me. She’s a staunch animal rights activist and uses her confrontational spoken word artistry to challenge the people and places who don’t take that seriously. Her drive has landed her in jail numerous times, leaving Wendy to bail her out like it’s no big deal. Trust me when I say I am completely on Wendy’s side with her annoyance here. But Lacey also proves to be a loyal and supportive friend who initially struggles with Wendy’s new job, mostly around her secretive nature about it considering she’s supposed to be a temp. She eventually comes to terms with it, explaining to Wendy as she struggles to handle Tyler’s new job at Fatboy Industries, that it’s not a change of person, just a change of circumstance.
Wendy and Lacey also have a little community in the building they live in. Noser is probably the girls’ closest friend in the building and when he goes missing in one episode, Lacey drops everything to find him because Wendy is worried and is busy at work. Naturally, like most of the B plots, it intersects with the A story in a bittersweet way, at least for Lacey and the Middleman.
It’s obvious from the first time Lacey meets the Middleman that she is attracted and it seems the Middleman is as well, just a little shyly. Their paths cross multiple times thanks to Wendy until they finally find themselves in the same movie theater to see the same flick. The only ones in the theater, they have a little date until the Middleman gets called away. Their first official “date” -watching the same movie again in the same spot, this time the Middleman bringing Lacey the vegan candy the theater didn’t have- ends the same way. It turns out that the Middleman has never seen the end of the movie, so Lacey promises to watch it for him. Their budding romance is cut short, however, by Wendy. Not out of jealousy, and not entirely because it would be weird to have her roommate and best friend dating her boss. Wendy is too aware of the dangers of the job. She doesn’t want to see Lacey get hurt, either because she’s caught in the crossfire or because something happens to the Middleman.
She relents on this position later when it becomes obvious thanks to a couple of vampire puppets (trust me) that Lacey and the Middleman are truly in love. However, the Middleman chooses -at least right then- to keep his distance from Lacey.
At least they appear to get together in an alternate universe.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend at least a paragraph or two talking about what is probably my favorite character and the center of my personality vision board, Ida.
She’s an android whose programming got stuck on snarky librarian (or grumpy schoolmarm) and she dresses like fashion is something that happens to other people. In other words, she’s glorious. Ida’s not only been around forever, but she also has the benefit of not having human emotions or frailties. What she does have is one-liners and insults, which are usually directed at Wendy, whom she’s convinced is a pot smoker and is fully capable of anything as long as it’s failure. Their back and forths in an already jam packed, fast talking show stand out. But don’t think Ida reserved all of her best lines for Wendy. The Middleman is frequently on the receiving end of her barbs.
Though the relationship between Ida and the humans might look entirely antagonistic, the Middleman and yes, even Wendy, are quite fond of her. When it looks like Ida will have to be sacrificed to save the world and they’ll have to continue on Ida-less, both the Middleman and Wendy pay their respects to her…before a new Ida arrives from O2STK with the same look, wardrobe, and personality.
We also get a glimpse of an inner Ida -literally- when Wendy is shrunk in order to get into Ida’s brain (just go with me). Inside, she finds a much more demure, fashionable Ida whose wit is still just as sharp, but overall, she’s just a little softer.
With the mix of humor, action, heart, and characters, this show should have lasted a whole lot longer than twelve episodes, but 2008 slept on it. It’s rare for the first season of a show, no matter how long, not to have a miss, and The Middleman didn’t. Every episode is a banger. Could it have kept that up? Odds are no. But we were robbed of that chance to find out.
The Middleman and Wendy deserved to save the world a whole lot more.