In part two of our talk with The Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach, we discuss finding an audience for comic-type shows, The Middleman on DVD, and whether he kept any props from the show….
Newsarama: Javi, do you think it’s easier these days to do a show with that sort of comic book aesthetic, particularly with all the innovations in special effects?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: Totally! But the problem isn’t having the technology. The problem with a show like this isn’t technology, it’s whether it can cross over to a broad audience. I think The Middleman would never have worked on a broadcast network, because it’s a very niche show.
The characters spoke quickly, the plots were weird, there’s a lot of references to popular culture…it’s to ABC Family’s credit that they took a chance on it, and why I’m so grateful they put it on the air. I don’t begrudge them any of the decisions they made when it came to the show.
Comic book material is very niche, you know? It has an easier time crossing over in features, but on TV, you’re asking people to commit to inviting this weirdness into their homes week after week. Sometimes, it takes a show like Lost that has an ensemble cast that speaks to something more universal than the SF of it.
NRAMA: Well, keeping track of continuity and characters and relationships and mythology is much different from saying, “Here’s a CSI team, and here’s the dead corpse covered in semen for this week.”
Grillo-Marxuach: (laughs) Absolutely! And, you know, there’s nothing wrong with a dead corpse covered in semen – it’s just a different mode of storytelling. There’ve been a lot of successful SF shows over the years, I don’t think it’s nearly the ghetto that people make it out to be, but it is a very specific genre that fits a very specific consumer, and I’m just glad that we have the technology to make it and put it out there, and sometimes do some really interesting work.
NRAMA: Well, there has been a lot of evolution over the decades. Now, when you do a SF show, it’s not “The Fugitive with aliens,” any more, it’s something where the fantastic elements are much more deeply ingrained in the premise.
Grillo-Marxuach: Well, all drama is better. That’s the thing. Compare Adam-12 and The Wire, or Dragnet and The Wire (laughs) or Peyton Place and Mad Men. Everything has evolved, and I think that applies to sci-fi as well, you know?
NRAMA: The biggest trick is – and this seems to carry over into comics – balancing the mythology-driven elements and the character-driven elements.
Grillo-Marxuach: I have to be honest with you: On The Middleman, we just said, “Screw it.” The network bought The Middleman, they said, “Go ahead and make The Middleman,” so I went ahead and made The Middleman.
As I keep saying, ABC Family was great. The cool thing they did was they said, “It’s your show – make it as quirky and weird as you want.” They let us do what we wanted with the show, and create our own mythology – they were up for those things!
Honestly, a lot of the time, it’s about what you’ve sold the network, and your vision for it, and whether or not they’ll agree to let you do it. I believe that the networks are, more often than not, creative partners with people like myself in doing shows, and they’re not the malignant organisms they’re often portrayed as being.
If you can get a network to agree to do a show that’s very serialized – like Heroes or Lost, or something coming up like FlashForward or V – I think at this point they understand the kind of show they’re getting. I think the problem comes when networks and creative people disagree what the show will be format-wise, that sort of thing.
You see that tension more at the beginning of most shows. On Lost, for instance, we were trying to figure out if this was a serial or a self-contained adventure, and we figured out pretty quickly that it was a serial, and we ran from there.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the show was so successful right out of the gate, because that gave us a lot of freedom to do some of our wilder ideas. The network wanted the show to be successful, but they also wanted to preserve what made it successful in the first place.
NRAMA: Though when you’re on cable, like The Middleman, you do have a situation where the audience has to discover you, and it’s harder to get that “out of the gate” success.
Grillo-Marxuach: Yeah, but I want to say how much I appreciate how sites like Newsarama supported the show – the success we had was viral, but the sci-fi press and the comics press were just amazing in getting us out there.
NRAMA: And the people who found the show were very loyal to it – they quote the lines, make those mashup videos of all the Middleman quotations –
Grillo-Marxuach: Just so you know, the writing staff of the show – we’re all very close, we all hang out together – and we’ll send each other Middleman exclamations. I get a text from Andy Reaser at least once a week. We’re still doing exclamations in our spare time. Whether that’s funny or pathetic, you tell me. (laughs)
The thing that’s always been nice for me about this show and its evolution is that people pick up on it. It was not tremendously successful on television, but I think it’ll be a big hit on DVD, because people who watch it pick up on it, and like you said, no one’s been shy about evangelizing for it, which is great.
NRAMA: What do you feel is the real core of the Middleman’s appeal? You would know better than anyone else…
Grillo-Marxuach: I think, honestly…there’s the references and the comedy and all the inside stuff, but what I always wanted to do was make a show that was happy, and a show that didn’t bum people out. It’s an optimistic show, and the characters are likable. They’re not hateful people. They actually like each other and treat each other well.
I believe a great deal of the appeal of the show is that it leaves you feeling good about the world and about yourself, and it leaves you feeling optimistic and energized instead of depressed and despairing, you know? It was always a happy show, and it was always my intention to make a show that expresses a certain kind of optimism, and that what people attach to.
That, and it’s also the nerdiest, most geeky hour of TV ever, you know? (laughs)
NRAMA: It’s funny you mention that optimistic POV, because there are some complaints that many superhero stories are a bit downbeat these days.
Grillo-Marxuach: Well, The Middleman isn’t realistic. (laughs) But I think when you’re writing books about heroes, one of the natural things to go to is wondering whether being a hero is a burden or not. And sadly, I think for most people the answer is “yes,” because in real life there’s a lot of sacrifices you have to make in order to make the right decision.
Superheroes are superheroes because they always make the right decision and fight the good fight, and a lot of the time it’s very easy to transpose that onto the writing, you know? Spider-Man is all about how being a superhero has destroyed his life, and Buffy is about the sacrifices she has to make, and I get that. I completely understand that and think it’s a valid choice.
But for me, thinking about heroism and doing the right thing in my own life – good deeds aren’t always punished, they just don’t go rewarded immediately. That was an interesting point to put across, because that genre of material can be extremely dark and extremely grim, and I thought there was room for a rival hypothesis here, one that was maybe equally valid.
I don’t think being downbeat is a question of being realistic or unrealistic. I think it’s a question of world view. It just happens that this is my world view, and I wanted to express it through this medium. If I were writing a show about lawyers, they would likely be lawyers who would do the right thing, pay the price, and it doesn’t kill them either.
NRAMA: We could use some lawyers like that on TV…
Grillo-Marxuach: (laughs) We sure do!
NRAMA: Well, we had Eli Stone for a while…
A fannish question: Did you keep anything from the show, like the Dracula puppet or…
Grillo-Marxuach: Dude, I kept everything. I mean, just going around my living room right now – I have the wooden box with the red button with the concussive stun field generator and the truth bomb. I have the clock from the Ops center…I have two of the helmets from the Nanites…I have Albert Einstein’s brain in its jar from that episode…I have the quantum singularity machine…I have the baby HEYDAR…I have the fish puppet from Episode Five…I have the fish suit…all the Middle-Weapons…the Middle-Watches…all the eyeglasses that Wendy and Ida wore…
The thing I am most proud of is the bottle of Hai-Karate that Kevin Sorbo wore in his episode. I don’t know why, but I just saw that in the prop storage and said, “I gotta keep this!”
It was all so beautifully crafted that I couldn’t bear to get rid of any of it, so I had it all shipped to me.
NRAMA: Some people have their “Man Cave,” you have a “MiddleCave…”
Grillo-Marxuach: I do. (laughs) I’m pretty happy with the stuff I got to keep. They did me a solid.
NRAMA: Curious as to whether you kept the catsuit…
Grillo-Marxuach: I don’t think we owned it. There’s an interesting story about the catsuit: Originally, it was just for a promotional photo shoot. And ABC Family loved that catsuit so much that they said, “You’ve got to put Wendy in the catsuit in the show, and in the opening titles!” So we said, Okay!” and we did it.
The thing is, we weren’t going to buy a catsuit, but a bunch of them came in and Natalie tried them on…and one of them was the one Uma Thurman wore in The Avengers. And as you well know, Jeremiah Chechik, who directed The Avengers, wound up directing our pilot and three episodes subsequently.
NRAMA: Wow, so it really was an Emma Peel catsuit…
Grillo-Marxuach: We didn’t use that one, actually, because Uma Thurman is a bit taller than Natalie. But we did use the yellow teddy bear (that Lacey wears in one episode) from The Avengers.
NRAMA: Any last words for our Middlefans?
Grillo-Marxuach: The only thing I can say is “Thank You.” When we did Comic-Con last year, we had a full house at our panel, hundreds of people at our autograph booth. I was at a Sci-Fi creators panel with Ron Moore, all these great guys…and when I came out, the Middlefans were there in full force and started screaming “Art Crawl!”
So all I can say is “Thank you,” and “All your questions were be answered.” The only one we don’t answer is what happened to Wendy’s dad. Read the original graphic novel for that…and on the DVD in the commentary, I reveal the origin of O2STK. So everything will be answered if you read the comic and get the graphic novel and the DVD. (laughs)
The Middleman: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse will be out during the San Diego Comic-Con. The series arrives on DVD July 28, and the Comic-Con reading takes place on Thurs., July 23 from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. in room 6A.