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Middleman: The Complete Series, The

Shout Factory // Unrated // July 28, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted July 28, 2009 | E-mail the Author
We failed.

That's right, I said it. Turn in your membership cards for suspension, because we, the American geek public (myself included), let a show that loves Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Die Hard, Night of the Living Dead and Escape From New York as much as we do -- just to name movies -- get canceled. "The Middleman" probably wasn't advertised well enough (I hadn't heard of it until I picked it from the screener pool, plus the show's verve probably doesn't boil down into 30-second TV promos), and it was also on abc family, a channel which isn't exactly defining the television zeitgeist with hip shows for pop culture junkies. It doesn't matter now, though: "The Middleman" is also the kind of show DVD was destined to preserve, and it's hitting the format now thanks to the fine folks at Shout! Factory. If you want your nerd cred back, then I'm as serious as a German film festival: "The Middleman" needs to be in the DVD collection of several million genre fans, and it needs to be there yesterday.

"You know how in comic books there's all kinds of mad scientists and aliens and androids and monsters, and all of them either want to destroy or take over the world?"
"In comic books, sure."
"Well, it really does work like that."
"Get out."
"You've already forgotten what you saw?"
"And you're the superhero?"
"I never wear tights."

Describing what makes the show so great instead of having one see it for themselves is a bit of a challenge. Lead actress Natalie Morales describes the show in the extras as "Men in Black meets 'Get Smart'", which is a good start, but that doesn't convey how clever the dialogue is, thus my need to pepper this review with actual quotes. Take The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) himself, who spouts off exclamations like "Sackful of eels and coat hangers!" (shocked) and "My little pony!" (angry) as if such wordplay was commonplace, and drops pearls of wisdom such as "Specificity is the key to all good communication," and "Sometimes when you put your nose to the grindstone, all you get is a bloody nose." He's calm in the face of danger, and he sees the same in young, photogenic artist Wendy Watson (Morales), who doesn't bat an eye when a monster made out of body parts attacks her at her latest temp job. After a series of aptitude tests administered by schoolmarm-y secretary Ida (Mary Pat Gleason), Wendy finds herself as The Middleman's newest partner-in-training.

"Louis, I would never hit a man in a dress unless I had exhausted all other options."

Wendy shares an illegal sublet with an equally photogenic artist named Lacey Thornfield (Brit Morgan). She's an animal activist who snacks on cruelty-free asparagus jerky and keeps a thermos of fake blood in the refrigerator to spread on the inhumane. Wendy and Lacey's friendship supports the show as much as it supports the characters, creating a friendly B-storyline to fill in the spaces between the action. Lacey also immediately has eyes for The Middleman (or Wendy's Sexy Boss Man, as she calls him). Morgan and Keeslar have enough natural chemistry to rival Jim and Pam, and every scene with the two of them together (especially their attempts to watch a movie together in "The Cursed Tuba Contingency") is the very definition of charming. Also appearing in the second episode and then nearly every episode in the season's second half is Tyler (Brendan Hines), who conjures up an equal amount of intimacy with Wendy Watson herself.

"You let yourself become distracted, and next thing you know, a geological rift opens and the city's overrun by three-toed hominids who once battled mankind for dominance while you've got your tighty-whiteys around your ankles."
"That happened to you, didn't it?"

And what about Wendy Watson? With the wrong actor, "Dub-Dub" (or "Dubby") could easily be a grating mess of the kinds of backwards cliches that would make a video-game playing, butt-kicking young woman look poorly exploitative. Thankfully, Morales (who looks like she could be Rosario Dawson's younger sister) brings what I'd guess is plenty of herself to the role, walking the perfect line between clever, sarcastic, enthusiastic and self-aware to create the kind of action heroine you can root for. She's got shades, too. I bet dollars to donuts another show wouldn't have allowed the art-loving Wendy and the kung-fu Wendy to be the same character, but here both sides of Wendy define her equally, instead of one or the other. I promise, there aren't any character revelations here about how paint cans and bullet casings are really the same, or how violent murals were a sign of a need to beat up thugs.

"This is Zippy. We had to boost his IQ three times to get him to stop painting those damn soup cans."
"Not bad for a classical realist."
"Art snob."

On top of all this, the plots conceived by creator Javier Grillo-Marxauch (pronounced Gree-yo Mark-swatch) and his talented writing staff are just plain ridiculous. The pilot episode is about one of guest star Mary Lynn Rajskub's genetically altered gorillas wiping out city mobsters, while other stories involve vampire ventriloquist dummies, fish zombies and the resultant tainted energy drinks, and a boy band made up of scorned alien dictators. Most of the episodes pick a homage and run with it, such as "The Manicoid Teleportation Conundrum", which kicks things off with Wendy honing her interrogation skills on a training robot (the "secret location" being Twin Pines Mall) and continues with gags like fake code names "Strickland" and "Clara Clayton" and a television station with the call letters KBTTF (yeah, that's one letter too many, but so what?). This is, of course, all in the same episode where a Dr. Phil-like television psychologist traps Wendy and a bunch of aliens that look like over-altered plastic surgery lovers in a private hunting reservoir. Again, just plain ridiculous.

"So all those temp jobs really were Hell on Earth."
"What do you mean?"
"It was a joke. You know, because this is supposed to look like the Underworld but instead looks like a boring old office building."
"Sands of Zanzibar, you see an office building?"
"Yeah, you don't?"
"I see a field, wild, overgrown, barbaric. Look, over there, a feral rabbit."
"No, I see an office building."
"Wow, somebody's funny in the Underworld."

A few guest stars show up, most of whom should be familiar to anyone who's ever considered attending a comic convention. Mark Dacascos plays Sensei Ping, brought in to train Wendy in the martial arts; Kevin Sorbo plays a previous Middleman who's been cyrogenically frozen in case his arch enemy ever pops up again; Cabin Fever's Joey Kern appears as a man enjoying everlasting life (he's been doing yoga). The only drop-in I wasn't a fan of was The Parent Trap's Elaine Hendrix as a reformed succubus running a fashion photography studio. It's not Hendrix's fault, I'm just tired of the domineering artiste boss-from-hell character.

"I'm as serious as a Hefty bag full of Rottweilers."

There are only a few blemishes, and they're mostly minor. The computer effects are almost always terrible, but it shouldn't detract too much because "The Middleman" isn't a particularly serious show and the effects are never that important. A slightly bigger flaw is how a few of the episodes are resolved in resoundingly sudden surprise ways (the most glaring example is the out-of-nowhere, totally-unexplained appearance of a deck-mounted harpoon gun). There are also, as there always are in shows like this, the occasional line that's actually too clever for its own good. The worst problem, though, is the series finale. It's a fine show all on its own, but abc family cut the season's order by a single episode, meaning the actual finale (which would have probably tied the season's arc off in a more conclusive way) got left in the dust. Instead, we get an upsettingly pat non-conclusion; I'd rather have seen an unfulfilled, flying-off-for-another-adventure, action-packed "To Be Continued!" than the "Everything's Peachy!" close they came up with.

"Dubby, did he just turn into a bat puppet?"
"Man, I don't even have an opinion."

TV this good only comes around once in a blue moon, and normally we've got network scapegoat. abc shafted "Clerks: The Animated Series" for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", Comedy Central couldn't be bothered to renew "Stella", and Fox, of course, has pulled the plug on plenty of genius, including "Arrested Development" and "Futurama" (which, at the time of this review, they've resurrected and are trying to ruin again). Sadly, for "The Middleman", we have no one to blame but ourselves. They had sharp writing, a great cast, and a shockingly supportive and savvy network, and for whatever reason, the audience for which it was so lovingly crafted failed to tune in. It's injustice at its most heartwrenching, and the only comfort is knowing that all 11 highly entertaining episodes, and the 12th, bittersweet, painfully unsatisfying but still-sharp conclusion, are all available on DVD. Luckily, you can restore rightness to the universe by buying the DVD and hope that your belated patronage magically gets "The Middleman" a second shot somewhere else. If that sounds easy enough, that's because it's sheer elegance in its simplicity.

The episodes break down like this:

Disc 1: "The Pilot Episode Sanction", "The Accidental Occidental Conception", "The Sino-Mexican Revelation", "The Manicoid Teleoprtation Conundrum".

Disc 2: "The Flying Fish Zombification", "The Boy-Band Superfan Interrogation", "The Cursed Tuba Contingency", "The Ectoplasmic Pan-Hellenic Investigation".

Disc 3: "The Obsolescent Cyrogenic Meltdown", "The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation", "The Clotharian Contamination Protocol", "The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome".

Note: "The Middleman" was an abc family show, but if I know anything about people, it's that everyone's definition of "family"-friendly material really does range from one end of the spectrum to another. This TV-14-rated show contains things such as a decapitated head or two, a few fish zombies, the occasional gangster getting machine-gunned, some people being lasered, a handful of bleeped and black-boxed "profanities" and a significant amount of sexual content (including implied lovin' and a character having what she refers to as a "sex dream"). That said, I felt the show lived up to the channel's motto of "a new kind of family" in the most refreshing way. It's all about tone, and even though the program touches on PG-13 topics, it does so in a wholesome, PG-rated way that's never salacious or crude. If you're really prudish or your kids are under the age of 10, maybe you should look at another show, but I thought it was great to see a family show aimed at an older crowd in a way that was entirely fun instead of inappropriate.

As you can see based on the above breakdown, "The Middleman" is spread across three discs, with a fourth disc full of extras. It all sits in two double-disc slimcases that are slid into a slipcover, with a thin booklet and a one-page insert. The slimpak covers are made to look like Middleman organization file folders, with some fake IDs for Wendy and The Middleman on the back next to the episode listings, while the reverse (seen on the inside) is the map of the underworld from Episode 2. The discs have pictures of weapons on them. The booklet is made to look like the safety menu for the Truth Bomb, and includes a note from creator Javier Grillo-Marxauch and episode summaries. The insert advertises other Shout! Factory releases on one side and "The Middleman" finale comic book on the other. Lastly, the menus are fairly snazzy, making this a really nice-looking package inside and out.

The Video
"The Middleman" is a comic book of a show, and the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen episodes on these discs look pretty good, featuring strong, bright colors and a reasonable level of detail. There's some ghosting and/or motion blur, but it seems to be caused by the way it was filmed, not the DVD transfer. All in all, it probably looks a shade better than it did on standard-def TV, so most people should be happy with it. However, the show was also broadcast in HD, so the lack of a Blu-Ray release is disappointing.

The Audio
Even if standard-def abc family did air the show in widescreen, this DVD packs the episodes with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The brassy theme song is enthusiastically rendered across both front and back channels, as are the laser gun battles and occasional robot explosion. The only huge oversight is that no subtitles of any kind were included on this DVD, although it looks like you can use the closed captioning function on your television.

The Extras
Four audio commentaries grace the set: "The Pilot Episode Sanction" (Javier Grillo-Marxauch and director Jeremiah Chechik), "The Cursed Tuba Contingency" (Grillo-Marxauch, executive producer Hans Beimler and actors Matt Keeslar, Natalie Morales, Brit Morgan and Jake Smollett), "The Clotharian Contamination Protocol" (Grillo-Marxauch and writers Margaret Dunlap, Sarah Watson, Andy Reaser and Jordan Rosenberg), and "The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome" (Grillo-Marxauch, Keeslar and Morales). Each track has its own vibe: the first focuses on information about the production of the show, the second is a fun, jokey party, the third covers the writing process and numerous references, and the last is a pretty general overview, with a tinge of retrospective wistfulness. All of them are entertaining and free of gaps or on-screen narrating (and constantly reveal that there were more notes from abc family than I'd have guessed), although Grillo-Marxauch references deleted scenes that sadly are nowhere to be found.

The fourth disc contains the rest of the extra features, and there are tons. The onslaught begins with a series of five "Webisodes", including "Who Are the Middlemen?" (4:47), "The Middleman Set Tour" (5:49), "The Tech of the Middleman" (1:44), "From Script to Comic" (3:02) and "Varsity Fan Club Meets the Middleman" (2:55), with a Play All option (18:16). These are all strongly promotional and heavy on clips from the first episode. The most interesting one documents the show's journey from spec pilot to comic book back to television pilot.

14 "Javi-Casts" follow, each titled for one of the 12 shooting weeks, with weeks 2 and 6 sporting two Javi-Casts each. There's also another Play All option (a massive 1:18:56). Grillo-Marxauch is irrepressibly enthusiastic about his show, which is great, but watching all 14 hyperactive segments back-to-back becomes exhausting quickly (there should be a caffeine meter on screen tracking how much coffee and soda Grillo-Marxauch has had at a given moment). They start pretty inconsequential and get better as they go along (especially with the addition of co-hosts like Writers Jordan Rosenberg, Sarah Watson, Hans Beimler, Andy Reaser and Margaret Dunlap), although it's depressing to hear references to revelations planned for the unproduced season finale, and more than a handful of questions are repeated.

A gag reel (7:42) is mildly funny. Some of these clips appeared silently during the episodes' closing credits, but even with sound, most of them are worth a light chuckle at best. Still, in case you were unconvinced, the last one does prove that Brit Morgan is really the one dancing inside the yellow bear suit at the end of the third episode.

Two alternate scenes are next, from the "Manicoid Teleportation Conundrum" (1:38), and "The Flying Fish Zombification" (1:47). The first contains a psuedo-flashback of a young Wendy and her father, which I'm sure fans will love to see, but the second, presented in storyboard form only, isn't all that different from the final version (and that version was better anyway). Even though there are only two, a Play All option (3:25) has still been included.

Taped audition footage for Natalie Morales (7:03), Brit Morgan (2:06), Jake Smollett (1:19) and Mary Pat Gleason (1:36), with a Play All option (12:03), is fun to look at. I think some of the script pages might be different from the broadcast versions, but aside from Morales going a little bigger during the pilot's break-up scene, there's not much deviation between audition and the final performances. (There was also a weird glitch on the Audition menu; when the menu had finished its first cycle and was about to "loop", instead of starting the music on the Audition page over, it started it over on the Alternate Footage menu, and I had to go back out to he main menu and re-access the Audition page. Weird.)

Three Title Sequences (each 0:21, with a Play All of 1:01) are presented to show the evolution of the show's snappy opening, although the differences are minor and the third one is just the final version that plays during every episode.

"The Wilhelm Scream" (4:48) is a short featurette where Grillo-Marxauch explains the famous sound effect, followed by all of the show's clever uses of the scream in a handy clip reel.

"The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome" Table Read (56:02) is what it says: a recording of a complete table read with the whole cast and crew. There's not a lot of new information to be gained until the end of the episode, which is still in its pre-altered mode (before the 12th episode became the season finale), but the whole thing is amusing to watch.

"The Middleman-ager" is a series of 5 spots from the internet promoting some of the episodes (total 19:53). They're goofy and amusing, although the guy is always introducing a clip, which are still intact, so it's a clip-heavy 20 minutes. 5 "PSAs" (total 2:00) warn against the dangers of probes, DNA thieves, telepathy, vampire cows and cloning. A music video (1:54) for "Scream Ur Love 4 Me" by Varsity Fan Club (a band I still don't want to believe exists in real life) and a Ralph King photo gallery (a meaty 14:36) concludes the extras. Automatic advertisements for "Oban Star-Racers", "Mystery Science Theater 3000": Volume 14 and "Code Monkeys": The Complete First Season play when you put in the first disc.

My biggest disappointment is that despite all of the extras included here, the whole cast (along with Grillo-Marxauch and several writers) showed up at the San Diego Comic Con the same day this set hit stores to do a live reading of the unproduced 13th episode. Sure, you can buy a comic book with the same content, but it's really hard to imagine that footage not being the best extra on the DVD had it been included. Also (aside from the missing deleted scenes), most of the behind-the-scenes material is clearly pre-existing footage; I'd have given up, say, the web featurettes for a couple of newly-crafted retrospective chats. Other than that, the only major oversight is that, like the feature presentation, none of the bonus features are subtitled.

The world of television seems like a crazy roulette game. On top of putting together the right cast and crew, you also have to be on the right network at the right time, paired with the right lead-ins and lead-outs, attracting the right audience in the right demo, and that's just to stay on the air for more than a couple episodes. I bet 3 out of 5 programs get canned before they've garnered a single honest-to-goodness fan. I hate to keep harping on it, but "The Middleman" got to air 12 whole shows before abc family threw in the towel, and yet the huge audience for this great show just didn't tune in. This DVD is everyone's second chance. Strap on the Middlewatch, fire up the Middlecar and head to your nearest retailer to grab a tall cold glass of highly recommended entertainment.

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