“I’ll be godfather to a gopher’s girlfriend if the whole enchilada goes cattywampus because of one man’s dream of greater household convenience!” – The Middleman
It was June 16, 2008 when The Middleman premiered on what was then ABC Family. Ten years later, it’s time to celebrate this brilliant program and try once more to help nudge it further into Cult Classic status.
Way back around 2006 or so, I was at a local comic convention and happened to stop by what turned out to be the Viper Comics booth. An odd-looking comic book caught my eye, so I picked it up and flipped through it. It featured two heroes in military jackets facing off against an army of ninja luchadores (among other weirdnesses), and the dialogue was absurdly brilliant, so I asked what the heck it was. The guy at the table told me it was called “The Middleman”, and it was written by a guy who writes for Lost. I took a chance and bought a copy of the first issue.
I was hooked. The next day I went to the comic shop and ordered the rest of the series. It was glorious nonsense, a non-stop barrage of pop culture riffs and twisted lampshading of comic book cliches, inspired lunacy that seemed to be made especially for me, all of it illustrated with a straight-faced style that made the lunacy plausible, by talented artist Les McClaine.
And then I heard there was going to be a TV show.
Finally the day came, and the show was perfect. “The guy who wrote for Lost” turned out to be Javier Grillo-Marxuach, currently producing the new Dark Crystal Netflix series, and he was the writer-producer on The Middleman, and he made exactly the show he intended. The casting was perfect. Natalie Morales’ Wendy Watson had the exact combination of ’40s style snappy banter and DEFCON level snark, and Matt Keeslar’s Middleman was just too impossibly square-jawed and heroic, both of them counterbalanced by Mary Pat Gleason’s acerbic Ida, who is far more than she appears to be. Together, the three worked for a secret organization, one so secret even they didn’t know who they were. They called it O2STK, “The Organization Too Secret To Know.”
For twelve weeks, I was delighted. Through gangster gorillas, fashionista succubi, alien boy bands, haunted tubas, fish-craving zombies, and Dracula’s ventriloquist dummy, the Middleman just kept doubling down on the ridiculous, while somehow still building suspenseful action stories with a genuine sense of peril in the midst of the cartoonish twists. They even worked the Wilhelm Scream into every single episode.
Tragically, at that time, ABC Family, formerly Fox Family, and before that, “The Family Channel,” a network founded by Pat Robertson, was still best known as the home of the 700 Club, a religious talk show that occasionally veered into the sort of socio-political wingnuttery that has become all too common of late, and nobody was looking to the home of The Secret Life of the American Teenager for a brilliant comedic science-fiction adventure show.
Perhaps inevitably, despite the kind of support from the network that would have given Firefly six seasons and a movie, The Middleman withered and died on the vine. The few who heard of it and loved it were not enough, the network not yet known as Freeform was too small, and it was a time when a large portion of the science fiction world seemingly hated comedy. The thirteenth episode was never even filmed.
1 “The Pilot Episode Sanction”
Semi-abstract expressionist artist (in other words, chronically underemployed) Wendy Watson is behind a desk at a temp job when a lab accident introduces her to “The Middleman,” a square-jawed hero who protects the world and “solves exotic problems.” Wendy impresses the Middleman with her cool head and resourceful nature, and recruits her to become a Middleman-in-Training, just in time to stop a talking gorilla from taking over the Mob.
2 “The Accidental Occidental Conception”
A Chinese Terra Cotta Warrior comes to life and kidnaps the last living heir of the Qin dynasty. The Middleman and Wendy must descend to the underworld to rescue the boy. To do so, they need to enlist the aid of reformed succubus and fashion doyenne Roxy Wasserman.
3 “The Sino-Mexican Revelation”
Wendy begins her training with Sensei Ping, master of the Wu-Han Thumb of Death, before she and The Middleman have to intercede in a blood feud between Ping’s Clan of the Pointed Stick and a secret society of Lucha Libre wrestlers. And Wendy gets a boyfriend.
4 “The Manicoid Teleportation Conundrum”
The Middleman team investigates the mysterious disappearances of several members of a benevolent alien race, until Wendy is transported to a remote hunting reserve where the missing aliens (and Wendy) are hunted for sport.
5 “The Flying Fish Zombification”
Wendy needs to fight carnivorous flying fish and trout-craving zombies, while also trying to help her roommate, Lacey (Brit Morgan) to organize the latest incarnation of Art Crawl, a semi-occasional art festival for the tenants of her building.
6 “The Boyband Superfan Interrogation”
Wendy and The Middleman, teamed with a foul-mouthed 14-year-old girl, try to prevent an exiled alien dictator and his generals from returning to their home planet and incidentally destroying life on Earth along the way.
7 “The Cursed Tuba Contingency”
A cursed tuba from the Titanic turns up, which causes all those who hear it to drown in the icy waters of the north Atlantic. Wendy and the Middleman try to stop the tuba’s original owner from giving a performance. Meanwhile, The Middleman and Lacey attempt to go on a date.
8 “The Ectoplasmic Panhellenic Investigation”
A sorority appears to be haunted by ghostly cheerleaders, but it might be something far more sinister.
9 “The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown”
A wave of crimes that appear to be the work of a villain last seen in the 1960s leads to the thawing of a cryogenically frozen Middleman from the 1960s (Kevin Sorbo). Naturally the Middleman of the “swinging sixties” is going to have a little trouble fitting in.
10 “The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation”
When artifacts from Vlad the Impaler go up for auction, Vlad’s beloved ventriloquist puppet Vladdy, takes over the soul of the auctioneer and gets away. If Vladdy reunites with his puppet bride, it will bring on an eternal night of blood. Naturally the Middleman and Wendy have to stop it.
11 “The Clotharian Contamination Protocol”
The Middleman HQ building is overrun by menacing nanobots, which results in a parody of Die Hard that eventually turns into a parody of Fantastic Voyage.
12 “The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome”
In the series finale, a mad scientist (well, not really mad, just a bit miffed) opens a portal to an alternate universe, into which Wendy is thrown. She finds herself in a brilliant satire of Escape From New York.
After the show left the air, the cast reunited for a reading of the unfilmed season (and series) finale, “The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse,” at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, accompanied by the release of a comic adaptation with art by Armando Zanker (over layouts by McClaine, who was too busy with other work to take on this project), and a DVD collection of the series.
A few years later, Grrillo-Marxuach organized a successful Indiegogo campaign to publish a new graphic novel, “The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation,” in which the comic book and TV versions of the Middleman intersect. In a brilliant conceit, the characters and sequences from the comic book reality were illustrated by McClaine and the TV series cast and settings by Zanker. The book release was celebrated with a staged reading of the script featuring the full cast, with several writers from the show playing the roles of the comic versions, and actress Amber Benson playing comic book Wendy.
The Indiegogo campaign also funded the remastering and rerelease of all of the Middleman comics in paperback collections, which are now available at Amazon:
Volume 1: The Secret Recruitment Ultimatum
Volume 2: The Sino-Mexican Revelation
Volume 3: The Obligatory Arch-Nemesis Introduction
Volume 3.14: The Legends of the Middleman Dossier
Volume 4: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse
Volume 5: The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation
The individual issues are at Comixology. Pop over and pick up a free digital copy of the first issue!
Welcome to O2STK!
Note: Post edited to give Les McClaine his proper due.