Pleasure is common in this world, but delight is rare. The particular excellence of the ABC Family network show The Middleman is that it provides both—pleasures that one can describe and quantify, and moments of utter delight that it is hard to provide an entirely rational account of, moments that cause one to sit blowing little bubbles of glee, too happy to be thinking. It is a show that combines good humour with entire and utter silliness. Perhaps even more importantly, it does so without, as far as can be seen, alienating a significant part of its potential audience.
Those of us who love, with equal passion, such products of ABC Family's sister network ABC as Ugly Betty and Pushing Daisies are forced to admit that, much as we love them, we are aware of portions of our circles of friends for whom the shows are Marmite and mayonnaise on rye toast, or nails on a blackboard. The difference is, perhaps, that The Middleman is enchanting and whimsical without being camp or twee—not that, if you are a Pushing Daisies fan, as I am, there would be anything wrong if it were. The word "quirky" is almost as much sudden death as the word "feisty" and yet somehow both hover somewhere near one's lips at such times.
The adventures of the eponymous agent/superhero and his trainee assistant Wendy chug along neatly, providing us with a box of samples, with each of the various plots of genre television presented in turn, each with a spin that is all The Middleman's own. There is the episode in which Wendy is recruited—attacked by a tentacled mutant monster, she shows sangfroid enough to attack it with the contents of her purse and is spotted by her rescuer as possessing the Right Stuff.
There is the episode in which her martial arts instructor has to be rescued from vengeful Mexican wrestlers; the episode with the zombie pike that infects those it savages with a desire to eat trout; the episode with the defrosted Middleman of an earlier age—played, because this is a show which knows how to spend its budget, by a leering Playboy-generation Kevin Sorbo, who takes every oppurtunity to put Wendy into fetishistic villainess outfits. There is also—because this is pretty much obligatory—the episode in which we visit an alternate world, full of parallel versions of the characters, the males all sporting Evil Spock goatees.
Much of the show's delight comes from the way it relishes its string of constant references to other shows and films—the evil dystopia episode is full, for example, of references to Escape from New York as well as to the various Star Trek alternate universes. (The extent and complexity of these references is so Byzantine that the show comes with a LiveJournal—http://themiddleblog.livejournal.com/—on which one can check out all the references, some of which even the most avid of media fans is almost certain to have missed.) To cite the obvious, a secondary villain in this episode resides at 1997 Pliskin Crescent, referencing the supposed date of the events in Escape from New York and the name of its often referenced hero—"Snake Plisskin, I heard you was dead."
In the same episode, there was a plethora of McGuffins and plot tokens, and each of them proves to have been a reference that one might have spotted, but probably did not. In each episode, the Middleman and Wendy assume identities and each time they do so, the names they pick are thematically related to the week's crisis—"Russell and Van Cleef" in the dystopian episode. This is a show that knows its audience and strokes their fannish egos.
Unlike most genre shows, though in line with many ABC shows, The Middleman passes the Bechdel test—its female characters regularly have conversations with each other that are only occasionally about the men in their lives. In fact, it is often quite a long time before Wendy and her "equally photogenic roommate" Lacey even get on to mentioning the good-looking boss Wendy does not like to talk about—they are artists and talk about art, and illegal subtenants, and New York property prices. Sometimes, Wendy and the Middleman's prickly robot slave—an elderly librarian in a housecoat—bicker about almost anything that can be imagined.
This is a show whose characters have, and sometimes share, obsessions—Wendy finds a man who loves zombie movies as much as she does, and the Middleman takes to Lacey partly because her animal rights work demonstrates what a serious person she is. The show gradually accrues further inventive recurring characters—a succubus who runs a halfway house for those who would, like her, reform; a millionaire who manufactures a small electronic object of domestic utility (I don't think that this is a Henry James reference, but I would not say so with absolute certainty). It is a show that, as it creates this cast, does not assume that the default of all characters is WASP—Wendy is Hispanic, though this is not a matter about which she has particular convictions.
Like much of the best genre television, and most teen media, The Middleman comes, as the expression goes, "pre-slashed for your convenience." None of the characters are clearly in same-sex relationships with each other, though most of the heterosexual relationships are vaguely blocked off as well—the show has a general atmosphere of free-flowing eroticism, or even lubricity, which makes the world sexier than the sum of its characters.
This is a show adapted from comic books and it is to be feared that it will return there, or some other limbo, long before we see more episodes. There is no news of a second series being commissioned for next summer, in spite of its rave reviews and devoted following; sometimes sweet and likable shows have to be treasured for each episode that actually got made rather than the many others which might have been. This means we may never know the fate of the Evil Twin, or the result of Wendy's Quest for her lost father, or the identity of the woman the Middleman loves in addition to his vague crush on Lacey; we just have to be content with what few wonderful, mad creatures the show had time to give us.
Roz Kaveney is a writer and reviewer living in London. Her most recent book is Superheroes!; other titles include Reading the Vampire Slayer, From Alien to The Matrix, and Teen Dreams.