Why The Middleman is Worth Saving
In the world of television, it’s not a question of judging a book by its cover; rather, it’s about judging a show by its network.
For How I Met Your Mother, the “CBS is for lame people” stigma amongst some younger viewers keeps them from giving the show a decent shot, and in the process a show that should have been a big success from the beginning took three seasons and stuntcasting to guarantee itself a fourth. The show should have been 30 Rock before there was 30 Rock, and yet still quite a few people who would love this show are staying away.
And this summer, another example has popped up which is even more apparent. When The Middleman debuted back in June, I called it “a science fiction comedy with plenty to enjoy.” Since that point, I’ve grown to love the show, even those elements that I wasn’t so keen on in the pilot. The show has gone to great strides to build great characters and craft strong stories which serve their purpose, all with an added dose of pop culture humour to add to the show’s general charm.
But, a lot of people haven’t seen that. When someone posted about the show’s debut on a popular message board, these are amongst the first responses:
“You piqued my interest until I heard ABC Family.”
“No wonder I couldn’t find the show anywhere last night. ABC Family huh? Probably pass.”
And therein lies The Middleman’s problem: it’s not that ABC Family is a bad network, as Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Formerly an executive producer on Lost) has nothing but good things to say about the show’s treatment on the network side of the equation. Rather, they are a network with absolutely zero cache with the genre audience that the show is appealing towards. In fact, I’d say that they have negative interest: these people are not just unlikely to watch a show on ABC Family, but they are likely to actively avoid such a show thanks to its network affiliation. This means that any attempt to increase the show’s audience, which is miniscule if stable thanks to such issues, is going to take a whole lot of convincing to an audience that has never given the network a fair chance.
But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t trying, and it certainly doesn’t mean that anyone reading this who has yet to sample The Middleman shouldn’t immediately do so by searching through their on-screen guide, unblocking ABC Family, and opening your mind to a new kind of summer show – or, even better, buy it on iTunes, so you can bypass the stigma altogether.
Because this is a show that needs, and deserves, the viewers.
Need further proof? Check out bigwig critics like Maureen Ryan or Alan Sepinwall lining up with pieces purely designed to sell the show to new viewers. Or take a listen to the Middlecast, where you can listen to fans (and in one episode the show’s writer, Sarah Watson) chat about the latest episodes. Here we have the two greatest tests of a show’s strength: both us cynical critic types and the hardcore fans are finding traction and exerting effort to make people aware of the series.
Much of it might have to do with the show’s multi-layered approach: it has roots in a comic book, produced from the show’s pilot that no one would buy, so it has some of that frenetic pacing with its science fiction qualities and attention to fan response. It has also evolved into the aforementioned pop cultural juggernaut, using each episode to slip in numerous references for fans of other films or TV shows . And yet, on top of all of this fan service of sorts, there’s a wonderful sense of character: this is a show that isn’t just forcing people into situations to satisfy the above qualities, but rather about making them into real characters.
So, on a certain level, we can call it a show about a crime-fighting duo of The Middleman and Middleman-in-training Wendy Watson, tasked to solve paranormal crimes in order to protect the world from imminent danger. On another level, we can call it the story of Wendy Watson, a struggling young artist whose gruelling temp job results in conflict with her best friend Lacey and whatever semblance of a normal life she leads following her recruitment. And on another, it’s just a ridiculously fun science fiction comedy where the writers clearly love geeking out in this totally unrealistic world.
This kind of approach could result in a show that feels entirely fractured, never quite finding its own voice, but this is a show that doesn’t need to worry about any of that. It is a show that has deftly created its own universe, with various inside quirks and references that push that world’s continuity, from Noser’s “Stump the Band” to the various ridiculous moves of Sensei Ping, while continuing to inject references and influences from modern popular culture without feeling trite or false. Javier described it to Alan Sepinwall as a show that doesn’t use pop culture in a mean way, or in a self-congratulatory way, but rather in a way that just works.
And it all works to create a show that people care about – while I wasn’t too hot on Wendy’s less action-packed side of things after the Pilot, since that point her life in her illegal sublet has proved just as interesting, offering up some great continuity and a chance to expand the show’s characters. Where some shows struggle to integrate these two worlds, they’ve smartly brought The Middleman into Wendy’s, and used romantic tension and solid “B-Stories” to welcome us into the more human side of the world without damaging the charms of a world where Ida, the Middle Secretary, is a snooty and wondrous robot stuck in “Marm Dominatrix” mode.
This all makes for a show worth saving, but also a show that has absolutely nothing to do with ABC Family’s core demographic of young adults and teenage girls. With The Secret Life of The American Teenager drawing more viewers than Gossip Girl did, it is clear that ABC Family isn’t a network (like, say, The CW) that is struggling in reaching its core demographic with all of its programming. And with the aforementioned stigma in play, there seems to be a lot of barriers to convincing people to give the show a chance.
But, rightfully so, fans aren’t going to buy into the supposed futile picture that this might paint. Buoyed by tremendous support from the show’s crew and staff, fully willing to embrace the campaigns with earnest and gusto, they are plotting to make a difference. As someone who heavily covered the campaign to save Jericho, I am seeing alot of the parallels: they’re plotting to send M&Ms to ABC Family, they’re organizing online viewing parties of streaming episodes, and doing everything they can to let the network know that they are watching and enjoying this show.
And I commend them for being quick to pick up the ball and run with this one: if anything held back the Jericho campaign, it was that they had to learn about the benefits of streaming video or anything else as they went along. With their hard work and determination, Jericho fans won the support of the cast and crew, and essentially changed the landscape of television renewals with their victory. They were given no chance of success in the beginning, myself included, but they persevered.
Middleman fans should be happy to know that their situation looks even better; even with the show’s ratings struggles, the show has maintained a stable audience and has shown incremental gains as opposed to the sharp drop Jericho suffered from. The show also has the support of critics, something that Jericho never quite achieved and that could prove extremely beneficial in justifying a second season. And, instead of a network that was willing to cut its ties, I get the sense that ABC Family WANTS a reason to keep the show, or at least enough support that they could try shopping the series to another network.
So, count me amongst the supporters: I’ll be joining the Facebook group as soon as my internet stops being wonky, and I’ll be listening to The Middlecast this evening when creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach will be on with fans discussing the various ways the show can be saved. In the meantime, though, those who have yet to jump on the bandwagon can catch last night’s episode on iTunes, where The Middleman features guest star Kevin Sorbo (Television’s Hercules) in the season’s ninth episode, “The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown”; the show normally airs on ABC Family at 10pm; and if the network is still an issue for you, it is in the interest of great television that you, well, get over it.
Some Important MiddleLinks
ABCFamily’s Official Website (Featuring video blogs and table read videos)