When it comes to heroics, Judge William Lee is more of a middling man.
Fighting evil so you don't have to.
Based on the graphic novels by writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach and artist Les McClaine, The Middleman: The Complete Series proudly wears its comic book-loving heart on its sleeve. The four-disc DVD set contains all 12 episodes plus an abundance of extras. Though its audience was small at the time of its original broadcast—ABC Family pulled the plug before the 13th episode was filmed—this series created by geeks for geeks may gain more fans on home video.
Facts of the Case
Struggling artist Wendy Watson is trying to make ends meet by working at dead-end temp jobs when a monster at a laboratory attacks her. Her ability to remain cool and fight off the tentacled beast is witnessed by the Middleman, who finishes off the monster with his high-tech ray gun. Recruited as a sidekick, Wendy joins the ranks of a super-secret organization dedicated to defending the Earth against "exotic problems" such as animated terra cotta warriors, menacing lucha libre wrestlers, trout-eating zombies, teenaged extraterrestrials and much more.
Twelve episodes, running approximately 43 minutes each, are spread across the first three discs with audio commentaries accompanying select episodes. Disc 4 is packed with bonus materials (more on those later).
Creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach (writer and producer for Lost) originally conceived The Middleman as a television pilot but developed it as a comic book series instead. The success of the graphic novels published by Viper Comics got the attention of ABC Family, which commissioned a 13-episode run. Aired in the summer of 2008, the network canceled the show before the season finale was filmed. Returning the characters to print, The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse! tells the story of the thirteenth episode in comic book form (available July 2009).
Concisely described by series co-star Natalie Morales as Men in Black meets Get Smart, the world of The Middleman is unapologetically geared for fans of sci-fi and comic books. Packed with references to spy movies, old TV shows, classic rock and just about any other nostalgia that might be found in basement storage, the tone is tongue-in-cheek but never campy. The comic book overtones fit easily with the contemporary everyday world due in large part to how the two main characters are played against one another: the Middleman is the too-good-to-be-true action hero while Wendy is the modern geek-smart girl who isn't fazed by the weirdness around her. Consider the scene where the pair explains to a crowd of onlookers that the miniature wormhole floating above their heads is just a street magic trick. This is a world where exotic occurrences are merely curiosities awaiting a rational explanation. Wendy and the Middleman shoulder the responsibilities of the universe's truths so we don't have to.
The writing style is established by Grillo-Marxuach in two early episodes adapted from the graphic novels. Characters speak in a "mannered and alliterative speech pattern" that resembles a cross between a hard-boiled detective movie and The Gilmore Girls. References to all things geek and pop cultural come fast and furious. Even the graphics that identify the time and location of a scene are opportunities for gags. In the earlier episodes this style of humor is laid on pretty thick as though the writers were trying a bit too hard to establish their comedic tone. For example, the lengthy description of a sports bar featuring scantily-clad waitresses quickly gets less funny the more times it's repeated. It takes a few episodes, but, fortunately, the scriptwriting does find the right pace without compromising its style.
Matt Keeslar (Art School Confidential) plays the stoic Middleman as a big Boy Scout with flashes of bad cop brutishness. The character's outward toughness develops over the course of the series, but Keeslar gives him the right personality. The Middleman manages to be both dorky and charismatically confident. Keeslar handles the verbal aerobics that are a large part of the scripts like he was born to talk that way. When he utters an exotic place name in place of a profanity, it works.
As Wendy the sidekick, Natalie Morales (Quitters) is like a cross between the urban cuteness of Rosario Dawson and the sarcastic wit of Ellen DeGeneres. Serving as the viewers' surrogate into this world, she has an ironic, practical perspective that helps to keep it real. Sure, Wendy wants to impress her boss by stopping an alien soldier from destroying the city, but she's also worried that her best friend might do something rash and get them kicked out of their illegal sublet.
The supporting players do fine work but the standout is Brit Morgan as Lacey, Wendy's performance artist best friend and roommate. Morgan manages to suggest more dimensions to her character than you would expect from the standard trouble-prone best friend role. Kevin Sorbo (Never Cry Werewolf), Mark Dacascos (Nomad: The Warrior) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (24) guest star in different episodes.
The series is treated to a very good transfer on this DVD set. As should be expected for a new show, the picture looks great. Warm, earthy colors are stable, the image exhibits no technical glitches and the level of sharpness is satisfactory. The lighting style usually aims for the middle range of illumination so highlights are never too bright and the shadows never appear so deep as to hide the details of the art direction. The soundtrack is presented in 5.1 surround, but being a dialogue-heavy show, mostly front soundstage is engaged. Occasionally used, the rear channels and low bass are indeed effective when the time comes to enhance a special effect or create a fuller sound environment. There are no optional subtitles unless your player can display close captioning, but fortunately the rapid-fire dialogue sounds strong and clear.
Series creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach is the consistent voice on commentary tracks for four episodes: "The Pilot Episode Sanction," "The Cursed Tuba Contingency," "The Clotharian Contamination Protocol" and "The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome." He is joined variously with the cast members and series writers. As everyone seems to have fond memories from making the show, the talks are lively and filled with behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Grillo-Marxuach talks just as fast as his characters.
Fans of the show are treated to a big helping of extras on the fourth disc of the set. Some content is taken from the ABC Family website where Grillo-Marxuach worked overtime to capture and maintain the interest of fans. Five "Web Featurettes" (about 17 minutes total) are EPK material introducing the show to new viewers, featuring the actors in interviews and spotlighting the props and sets. More interesting are the 12 weeks of "Javicasts" (about one hour and 20 minutes total) where Grillo-Marxuach answers fan e-mail follows the broadcast of an episode. In a few installments, he invites other writers and crewmembers to help talk up future episodes. The "Middle Man-ager" segments feature a crewmember posing as a network suit introducing sneak peek clips from five upcoming episodes.
The rest of the extras include: a Gag Reel (7 minutes), audition footage (12 minutes), alternate opening sequences, a table read of Episode 12 (56 minutes), a compilation of clips where the famous "Wilhelm Scream" sound effect was used in the show, a gallery of still photos from the production and five fake PSAs by the Middleman and Wendy. The "Music Video" segment is the full musical performance by Varsity Fanclub in Episode 6, "The Boy-Band Superfan Interrogation."
The four discs are packaged in two slim cases that fit into a cardboard slipcase. An episode guide comes in the form of a 12-page "User Manual" booklet with a message from Grillo-Marxuach.
The Middleman is a fast and fun series that does justice to its comic book and sci-fi roots without taking itself too seriously. The likeable characters and creative scripts should fill up more than a dozen dateless Saturday nights.
Great Barrier Reef! This set is free to go.
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