Thursday, July 15, 2010

[Review] Middleman, the Complete Series (TV, DVD)

Middleman is a one season long TV series that aired on ABC Family in 2008, based on the comic book series of the same name. The comic, if i understand the story correctly, was created based on a TV pilot a writer on Lost had produced in the mid 00's, which then got turned back into a TV show driected at sassy teenagers for ABC Family. I was originally confused as to the network, because I think i had heard it was on Disney, and expected a kids show, but the show as produced has a surprising amount of (bleeped) profanity and lots of angsty young adult relationship/crush/flirtation stuff. But apparently ABC Family is actually going for sassy-mouthed faux-worldly teen aged girls, so that's why this show stars a sassy-mouthed faux-worldly college aged girl. But I digress.

The show is at its heart, one of those stories about the supernatural and/or superheroes actually being real in the real world. As in many of these, the main hero/investigator role is played by a tall handsome slightly older man (in this case, The Middleman (Matt Keaslar)) who is accompanied by his attractive, younger, sexy but not in a sexual relation ship with the tall handsome investigator guy (here, Wendy Watson, aka "dub-dub" (Natale Morales, who is in fact, ridiculously hot)). There are quite a few pairs like this: Mulder and Scully of course, any number of Doctor-companion pairs, Harry Dresden and Molly Carpenter, Angel and Cordelia, Plausibly HRG and the Cheerleader, and so forth. The Middleman is also one of those many modern deconstruction of the superhero type shows that occupy meta space in the same universe as the Tick, Venture Brothers and Dr. Horrible. Though I found it to have met the Dr. Venture metaverse halfway with the Dresden Files, as there is a lot more magic and demons and such than in most meta-superhero shows.

The Middleman is only the most current in a long line of Middlemen, the only apparent superhero in a world where all the most bizarre comic-book style threats to humanity are real. Villains with horribly over-elaborate superscience based plans they like to monologue about ("It's sheer elegance in its simplicity!") alien invasions, ancient resurrected Chinese emperors and thousands of ways for the earth to be destroyed on a daily basis. All that stands between us and all this crazy crap is the Middleman, assisted by his android sidekick IDA and, as of the start of the series, his sassy-mouthed Middleman in training, Wendy. The Middleman is funded and kept in cool gadgets by the OTSTK (Organization too secret to know) and the various fancy computers and shit keep a steady supply of plot solving god boxes on hand.

The series has some good ideas at its core, and can at times be fun. But overall, I found it kind of meh. It's problematic that this show messes around in well explored territory--the above mentioned interpersonal dynamic between the main characters and the meta-superheroes are real setting--but doesn't really add anything new to it. Part of my lack of enthusiasm comes from the overly simple characterizations of all these main characters. The Middleman is an absurdly straight laced Dudley Do-right type who's always a gentleman, watches only westerns, and drinks milk all the time. Wendy is the never phased by anything, too cool for school, always wisecracking nerdy hot girl. Her roommate exists to be a sexpot, her upstairs neighbor's purpose is to be the dick, and her boyfriend is there to be kind of cute and also spout more bantery dialogue. Pretty much all the dialogue on the show is constantly delivered with a grin and a wink, and that kind of ruins a lot of it...there is a great deal of character back and forth witticism reminiscent of old noir banter, but in a modern context, except the constant sarcastic winking at the audience tone makes it not really work for me. Or possibly the actors don't have the chops to make it work, I'm not sure.

The plots themselves are way silly, often too silly for a "Superheroes are real" plot line. Except, I could see the gun toting, mob-movie watching super-intelligent gorilla working on the Tick, or the Mexican-wrestler mask sporting Japanese Sensei Ping working as a character in the Venture Brothers, or the noirish reformed succubus Roxy Wasserman working in a Dresden Files novel. But things don't quite ever click on the Middleman. I'd find my self sort of getting into the show, but easily distracted due to slow pacing, or growing irritation with the overly sassy dialogue, and maybe a bit of eye rolling at the just slightly too absurd for its own universe plots. I feel a lot of the problem comes with combing thinly drawn caricature based characters with a "comic-books are real" vibe--in order to make it work, we have to feel the characters could be real people.

In the end, I think I've just seen this plot too many times before to be excited by it. You can rent the DVD's from netflix, and if you're into comic book plots, its not a bad way to pass the time. But given the choice, I'd rather watch the Venture Bros. again.

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