"Fighting Evil -- So You Don't Have To"

So, this post is mostly me going all fan boy on you, so if you have a low threshold for the freaky and geeky aspects of this blog, you may want to move along. But if you are looking for something fun to check out this summer, then let me recommend a new series, The MiddleMan, which has shown up on ABC Family, of all places.

The Middleman is based on a cult comic book series for Viper Comics, created by written by Javier "Javi" Grillo-Marxuach with art by Les McClaine. "Javi" was a producer and writer for the first two seasons of Lost, was the Co-Executive Producer for Medium, and contributed to Charmed and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. According to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, "Javi" had originally conceived of The Middleman as a television pilot before deciding that he would transform it into the comic book medium because it would cost to produce a "tentacled ass monster" for television.

There's three graphic novels worth of The Middleman comics out there, which I grabbed from my local shop after watching the premier episode of the series last week. I basically inhaled the three books on the first leg of a trip to Australia, still wrapped up in the afterglow of what turned out to be a really good first episode of what I hope is going to be a very fan-worthy television series.

Don't worry if you missed the first episode because it is available online from ABC Family for free (if you call being forced to watch almost a dozen commercials for the American Girl movie in a row "free") or from iTunes for a modest fee. You might also simply read the first graphic novel, given that the opening episode is an incredible faithful, more or less line by line recreation of the story from the comics.

How do I explain what this series is about? The Middleman is an all-American hero, a former Navy SEAL, who works for what the comics calls O2STK, The Organization Too Secret To Know. His job: "fighting evil -- so you don't have to." As he explains to the series female lead, Wendy, "Ever read comic books?....You know how there's all kinds of mad scientists and aliens and androids and monsters and all of them want to either destroy or take over the world. It's all true." Wendy is a snarky young art student temping at a scientific research center who finds herself staring eyeball to tentacle with a massive bug-eyed monster and she doesn't blink: she grabs a letter opener and fights back. Her plucky and matter of fact response to the stuff that makes most people turn inside out wins her the respect of the Middleman, who offers her a job as his assistant when it is clear that she's been blackballed from all other temp companies in the aftermath of the firey explosion that blows up her previous place of employment.

From there, things get a little weird -- although nothing that a regular reader of indie comics can't handle. In the opening episode, she confronts a hyperintelligent monkey who has based his whole world view on contemporary gangster movies like Scarface and Goodfellas and wants to rule the mob realm. After all, everyone knows that us comic fan boys go ape over super-intelligent apes. In the graphic novels, each book parodies a different genre, with the second volume devoted to a spoof of Mexican wrestling culture and the third book taking down every cliche from the James Bond franchise and a few from giant robot anime.

The scripts for the series, not to mention the comics, are full of one laugh out loud one-liner after another, most of them playing on precise and pithy references to popular culture: I haven't seen a script this dense with injokes since early Joss Whedon. The opening episode draws a strong parallel between the central protagonists and The Avengers (Emma Peale, not Marvel), and it's a hoot watching the ape tell us to "say hello to my little friend." The tone manages to be campy without being too campy: it doesn't take itself seriously but it also manages to make you care about the lead characters, which include not only the Middleman, who "Javi" aptly describes as "Dirk Squarejaw", and Wendy, but also Wendy's "not gay -- just a film student" boyfriend, her sex kitten and performance artist roommate, her seriously weird next door neighbor who speaks in lyrics from Johnny Cash songs, and Ida, the android who has gotten permanently stuck in the persona of a little old librarian with an attitude. (If the television version is half as good as what they do with Ida in the comics, we are in for a big treat.)

The performances consistently live up to the quality of the script: everyone gets a few memorable lines and moments in the spotlight in the opening episode and I can't wait to see where the characters go from here. While the opening episode is straight from the comics, it sounds like the second episode, which airs Monday night, will be original, best I can tell from the spoilers out on the web. I might have guessed this anyway because I don't think ABC Family is going to allow them the budget to do the spectacular battle royale featuring a legion of Mexican wrestlers from book 2 or depict the slug-fest between giant robots or the genetically engineered shark man from book 3 of the comics series. I wish I had something really profound to tell you about this series, but it's hard to reach profundity after only one episode (not to mention while sitting jetlaged in a hotel in Brisbane.)

But I did want to share my current fan boy excitement with those of you who regularly read this blog and may be looking for something fresh and a little different. When The Middleman asks Wendy if she reads comics, she rattles off "Astro City, Box Office Poison, Demo, Hellboy, Dead@17..." Those aren't bad as a set of cultural coordinates. I'd say that if you read and enjoy any of these books, then you should probably give this series a shot. And if you don't read comics, think Ghostbusters or Men in Black with a bit more hardcore indie edge than either of those Hollywood blockbusters.

You can get a taste of the performers and the show's sense of humor from these mock PSAs promoting the series.

Here's Wendy:

And here's The Middleman: