Tuesday, June 17, 2008

So It's Come to This: A Review of ABC Family's The Middleman

I was desperate for entertainment last night, and ABC Family had this first-run show among television's reality detritus re-packaged as summer reality detritus. The Middleman started out with a few bonus points, just for having no association with ABC Family's darling professional moralizing showrunner Brenda Hampton. As far as magical cyber-realism superhero shows go, it's not all that insufferable. The pilot, or the arbitrarily-named Pilot Episode Sanction, sets up the premise and the kind of pot-induced homages and humor we're in for. Struggling artist and X-Box fanatic Wendy Watson gets recruited by some nebulous organization to fight, literally, comic-book evil, and I always feel embarrassed for the actor who has to deliver that exposition: "The National Security Council's supercomputer was downloaded into your brain!" or "It appears the plasmatron laser fused your DNA with that of a squid!" Not just that could never happen, but, really, come on now, that could never happen.

At least The Middleman runs on a stylistic level that's aware of its absurdity, the comic book tropes its imitation flatters, and (to a lesser extent) the trite superhero conventions it adopts for narrative simplicity. The pilot's first half is the same setup — random encounter with evil forces, protagonist brought to the secret lair, she's resistant to the whole ridiculous idea, etc. — and neither all that promising nor indicative of the way The Middleman embraces its crazy fantasy in the show's second half. I'm not saying it was totally successful, but you'd expect one of those ABC Family shows to delude itself into thinking that a mad scientist breeding an army of super-intelligent remote-controlled gorillas in order to take over the world (there seems to be a step missing in there...) is the most Emmy-worthy thing ever, rather than a dumbass idea with possible comic potential.

My biggest disappointment with the show — aside from Wendy's least-flattering superhero costume and/or security guard's uniform circa 1986 ever — is the show's failure to live up to its tone. The Middleman kept reminding me of Bryan Fuller's aesthetic, with a cheap, retro vibe, bizarre over-exposition, loquaciousness, and alternately brisk and cautious speech patterns almost lifted from Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies... but whoever's behind The Middleman is no Bryan Fuller. It feels like the style in The Middleman competes with the characterization, and some of the tics bring the script to a halt. Wendy's boss and title character is perpetually and irrationally cheerful and super-consciously refuses to cuss — he sounds like a lobotomized Ned Flanders — and the worst part is it's just a setup for a particularly ill-executed joke. I can see a Fuller character like Charlotte Charles thinking of and soliloquizing someone's refusal to cuss as a surrender to and acceptance of destiny's random influence and one's insignificant but not inconsequential role therein, plus the Fuller speech would be amusing.

I guess the style substitutes for the humor ABC Family censors wouldn't work with — be shocked, it's sanitized and, save for one good joke at the end, the sort of stuff where you know why it's supposed to be funny but it's just not — or the inherent superhero violence that the censors cut, or the weird sexuality in concept only. It covers up the dishonesty, poorly — because there's no way any of that stuff would happen in the real world.