Monday, September 8, 2008

Review: The Middleman (2008)

This review contains only very general spoilers for the show The Middleman.

There's a new television superhero on the block. His name is The Middleman and he is very silly and a little bizarre, but highly entertaining.

The Middleman is a new American television show based on the graphic novels of Javier Grillo-Marxuach (a writer I was surprised to find on the other end of that link worked on the first two seasons of Lost, among other things) and Les McClaine (the artist). Grillo-Marxuach is the writer and producer for the show, which I suppose makes him show runner.

We've had rather a lot (too many?) superhero shows and films lately. Most put traditional superheroes in the 'real' modern world. Smallville is still puttering along, tracing the tumultuous life of a young Superman. Tobey Maguire has just signed up for two more Spiderman movies. Batman has of course recently hit the big screen for another of the darkest re-imagining of a superhero's story ever.

Among all these, The Middleman might seem like a rehash, capitalizing on the popularity of the genre. 2007's embarrassingly bad Flash Gordon is an example of a superhero show gone horribly wrong. And yet, The Middleman manages to sidestep both the pitfalls of being yet another superhero-in-the-real-world show as well as all the problems in being what it is-- a show that makes fun of the traditional and modern superhero genre. The result is bizarre and silly, but ultimately a fun, cheerful romp through a familiar landscape.

IMDB characterizes The Middleman as a drama, but it's not. It's a comedy. It's one large, constant joke. If there was a laugh track, there wouldn't be anywhere to put it in. The funny is in the characters, in the dialogue, in the situations, in the monsters, aliens and arch-nemesii that populate each episode, and even in the onscreen place labels.

The characters, especially The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) himself, are deliberate stereotypes of the genre. However, this very fact sets them apart. The Middleman is so stereotypical, he is unusual. Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), the young artist who becomes The Middleman's sidekick has her own stereotype crosses to bear but again the stereotype becomes part of the character, rather than the other way around. The result is undeniably quirky but (of course) loveable characters.

The whole show coasts on this principle. Instead of avoiding cliche, The Middleman embraces it wholeheartedly and unashamedly. Dialogue, the monster of the week, jokes, scenes, plot elements, music, forth-wall-breaking-comments... all manage to avoid the horrible wincing of cliche by being entirely cliche.

There are moments, yes, especially early on, when this principle doesn't always work. This is the case with almost all pilots of shows, however. The first episode or two, the actors haven't quite figured out how to deliver lines writers haven't quite figured out how to write. The Middleman is no exception to this. However, the pilot moves with such lightening speed that there's little time to wince, and once it truly gets going, there's no stopping it.

It's not the dark superhero show brooding in a pile of gore and angst we've all come to know and love. It's lighthearted and sustains a low hum of hilarity throughout. The Middleman does what every TV show yearns to do: It pulls it off.

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