June 16th, 2008
ABC Family caught my attention with Greek, but the network has been making its own move in the cable television arena over the past few years. The network has had success with shows like Greek, Wilfire or the upcoming The Secret Life of the American Teenager, shows that most easily fit into their teen girl demographics, but they’ve also made a few leaps into genre television. It is in the spirit of Kyle XY, then, that they bring us The Middleman, a science fiction comedy with plenty to enjoy.
Of course, there’s a lot of pedigree behind this project; the series is based on a comic book by Javier Grillo Marxauch, best known to this TV writer as an Executive Producer during Lost’s first season. Here, he’s writing comfortably in a genre that seems to work for him, and one that feels simultaneously fresh and familiar. Yes, it delights in a certain amount of cheese, and its quippy dialogue feels like the director realized that Gilmore Girls and Juno were both big with the kids, but as someone who enjoys both of those things I was thoroughly entertained.
While there’s no telling whether the pilot’s quirks, from its dialogue to its use of roundabout redundancies and on-screen irony, will remain in the episodes that remain, but when you combine a winning premise, an enjoyable cast and a summer where the rest of my TV schedule is catching up on series much more dark and depressing, Chloe from 24 genetically engineering Apes to take over the mafia and being thwarted by a superhero and his art school graduate sidekick is more than enough to keep me watching.
And yes, that’s actually the plot of the show’s pilot, a complicated mess that never once attempts to be taken seriously. Very little of the show is meant to be taken seriously in fact, if any at all – it is clear from the moment we see our first monster, and the first arrival of The Middleman (Matt Keeslar), that this is not about any sort of super-serious organization. This is ultimately for the best; without a light-hearted pace, the show would be far less entertaining, if it was even entertaining at all.
The lightning fast pacing helps the series get started, as Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales) is flung into a world of gadgets and evil comic book villains without much warning. Morales is asked to do a lot here: fire out the fastest dialogue since the aforementioned Gilmores, display just the right level of disbelief and biting sarcasm at The Middleman and his confusing offer. As with any show where we follow an unsuspecting participant in a science fiction environment, we need to be able to view them as a surrogate; here, while we could probably have gotten the humour of these situations ourselves, she is the best possible conduit, boiling things down where necessary while reacting in intriguing ways in others.
It’s the comic book stuff that they’ve got down pat, as the banter between Keeslar and Morales is seemingly effortless. A weapons gag mid-episode goes on a bit too long (Almost saved by the question of where precisely he was carrying that crossbow), but the questions I ended up asking about The Middleman himself were good. We don’t know who he works for (Hence his name), just that he was recruited by the previous Middleman to fight evil and those who attempt to take over the world Pinky and the Brain style. It’s a compellingly blank slate, and the character’s back story (Navy Seal who ignores orders to leave men behind and then punches his commanding officer) doesn’t jive with the character we see. The episode does fine work prodding at his nice-guy exterior, showing enough shades of grey to allow for the character to expand further with time. Similarly, the group’s all-purpose assistant Ida (Stuck in marm dominatrix mode after an appearance shift) is played to good comic effect.
It’s on the Wendy side of things that things get a bit off track, although nothing that a few tweaks can’t fix. I love her banter with the Middleman, a relationship that I think the show will do great things with. The problem is that the rest of her life is somewhat boring, whether it’s her stereotypical artsy boyfriend or her stereotypical activist roommate in her illegal sublet. The only part of her life I find distinctly entertaining, to be honest, is her Mother (Who we never get to see but who leaves messages asking if she’s a lesbian and seems rather a hoot) and Noser, her neighbour who sits outside her apartment and baits her into reciting with him lyrics from a variety of different songs (Hungry Hippos is a bit of a cheat, I think, but I can’t possibly resist a good Shaft reference). Neither of those two play a huge role, so I’m a bit worried that the other half of her life is falling apart. What sets a good genre show apart from a poor one is often the parts of the show that have nothing to do with said genre, and here they’re more than a bit weak.
But they were never totally off – even when the pilot wasn’t firing on all cylinders, there was always a laugh to get you through or a new little quirk that could assist the show moving forward. Javier (We’re on a first name basis until I can spell his name off by heart) does a good job of building his leads and establishing their banter, but it’s a distinctive style that will need some time to settle (and to see if the rest of the writing staff can pick up on it. This was the challenge facing a show like Pushing Daisies, perhaps the last show to fall so heavily into both quippy dialogue and a certain cheese factor, and that show’s success was about building characters to pull it all together. With a strong sense of what kind of genre show it wants to be, I can only hope this means that subsequent episodes can help to flesh out the other relationships in the show.
Plot was paper thin as you’d expect, the aforementioned hyper-intelligent and mind-controlled apes being used to do practical things (Speak, fly space shuttles, play chess) and world takeover things (like turning into a total mobster), complete with “realistic” ape costumes. It was a bit over the top at points, but if it’s a sign of things to come I say bring it on. I may have never really felt like the plot was driving me forward, but I also never wanted to turn away. Hopefully, as the episodes require less back story, perhaps we can see some more complete storylines and mysteries for our heroes to solve.
All in all, I’m charmed; it looks like ABC Family will continue to be my destination on Mondays, even after Greek heads into its summer hiatus. While I somehow doubt that their next series, the tween-girl focused The Secret Life of The American Teen, will be as well received by my demographic, I at the very least will be giving it a try out of good will to the network that has brought us another surprise hit.
- One area that ABC Family gets right is its blog on the show’s official website, playing well to both community building and getting great video blogs from “Javi.” It’s the kind of interaction that will work well for the network, and hopefully help usher in the show’s success.
- That was, indeed, Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24 portraying the primate scientist. I do hope that this won’t become one of those series where, somewhat like Pushing Daisies or any procedural with a light-hearted flair, that the biggest “name” actor or actress is bound to be the perpetrator. In this case, it was pretty darn obvious when we consider that she was also the only actor or actress we really actually got to see who had anything to do with the primates. Still, it reminds me of how much I enjoy her, and how much I wish 24 was better so I could watch her in it.
- I was watching this with a colleague, and we both enjoyed the redunancies of on-screen description and dialogue, a nice pilot trick that works extremely well. Whether that will continue on into future episodes depends on whether it will feel overplayed – hopefully, the writers will test this out before putting it into action carelessly.