Television Review: The Middleman on ABC Family

Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales from ABC Family's new comic book based series, The Middleman

The last decade has arguably seen a renaissance of SF/fantasy material on television – not to mention the rise of films and TV series that are either based on comic books or draw from the type of storytelling found there.

But let’s face it: Like comics themselves, SF and fantasy have gotten so…serious! Sure, there are plenty of moments of levity to be found, but for the last several years, it seems like every show contains terminal levels of angst, impending apocalypses, and continuity so convoluted you need an online encyclopedia to figure it out.

Thankfully, we now have The Middleman.

Perhaps the most faithful comic-book adaptation to grace the small screen since the animated version of Sam Keith’s The Maxx on MTV, The Middleman is a quirky breath of fresh air for those in love with weird humor, oddball ideas, and monkeys with big guns.

Adapted virtually line-for-line from the initial miniseries from Viper Comics (which was in turn adapted from Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s original pilot script), The Middleman tells of Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), a directionless twentysomething whose pattern of temp jobs, art projects and XBox gets an abrupt upheaval when her latest gig ends with a giant monster attacking her.

Soon, Wendy’s found herself recruited by the titular Middleman (Matt Keeslar) into a new life of android secretaries (character actress Mary Pat Gleason at her grumpiest), ape-breeding scientists (24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub in a fun guest spot) and stylist form-fitting outfits. In the process, Wendy finds herself in countless bizarre circumstances – and possibly a new source of inspiration for her dwindling art career.

The Middleman takes a concept that’s been used many, many times before – the everyman (or woman) recruited into a ridiculous secondary world of fantasy and paired with a more cynical veteran partner. What gives The Middleman its unique voice is its clever central conceit – that Wendy and the Middleman are both more or less immune to the weirdness around them. In the Middleman’s case, it’s because he’s an ex-Navy Seal numbed by years of combat; in Wendy’s case, it’s because she’s seen all this before in comic books (in one scene, she rattles off a very impressive pull list).

Each has their own voice, but as Wendy points out, she’s not exactly Robin the Boy Hostage. And it teaches writers around the world a valuable lesson about depicting struggling young people: Instead of having them sit around and complain about their lives and relationships, it’s more entertaining to watch them go out and kick butt.

How does a comic that features tons of weird creatures and hi-tech equipment translate to live-action? Surprisingly well, actually. Director Jeremiah Chechik (Benny and Joon) paints the action in bright, stylized colors that emphasize the oddball qualities of the Middleman’s world, with a training montage the highlight. Stylistically, the current show this most resembles is Pushing Daisies, with its colorful sets and rapid-fire screwball dialogue.

There’s also plenty of fun performances; Keeslar does a great job of making the Middleman deadpan-but-human, while Morales is sarcastic but adorable (and likely to become the object of many a fan site).

Most importantly, it’s just fun. There’s no overarching conspiracy, no sinister motivations, no end-of-the-world threat, just characters tackling weird monsters with wit, weapons, and virtually every pop-cultural reference known to man. It’s about goofy ideas and having a good time, the kind of show you’ll want to watch repeatedly to catch a line you missed the first time. And apes with guns. Could you really ask for more?

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