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TELEVISION REVIEW

Comic-book antics

June 16, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic
  • DYNAMIC DUO: Wendy (Natalie Morales) and the Middleman (Matt Keeslar) battle Italian gangsters and mind-controlled apes in the debut of spoofy adventure series ?The Middleman.?
DYNAMIC DUO: Wendy (Natalie Morales) and the Middleman (Matt Keeslar)… (Eike Schroter / ABC Family )

Context is all: It's hard to imagine "The Middleman," a new ABC Family series, arriving as part of a broadcast network fall season, or doing well there, even though it has much in common with last year's "Chuck" and "Reaper," other stories of average folk drafted to fight extraordinary foes.

There is something too light about it, too self-mocking, too narrowly aimed. But it is the sort of show that basic cable was invented for; in that venue, light, self-mocking, silly and narrowly aimed may be seen for the good qualities they are. This is good summer entertainment, like a Saturday afternoon B-movie matinee transposed to Monday-night TV.

The show is based on a comic book that was in turn based on a script written originally as a television pilot by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a producer and writer on "Medium" and "Lost" and a contributor over the years to sci-fi and fantasy shows, including "Jake 2.0," "The Dead Zone," "Charmed," "The Pretender" and "SeaQuest DSV," which is to say he's lived with this stuff long enough to want to make fun of it.

Grillo-Marxuach offers the nicely self-fulfulling premise that the world as represented in comic books is the world as it really it is, which lets the show be as much of a comic as it pleases. Tonight's opener, which involves Italian gangsters and mind-controlled apes, closely follows the comic's first four issues.

Our heroine is Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), alliteratively named in the tradition of Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Matt Murdock, Billy Batson, and Clark Kent. (Superheroic identities available on request.) A video-game-playing, comics-reading, deadpan millennial nerd girl -- a type now in vogue if not yet in Vogue -- she paints at night and gets by as a temp in the day, until she is recruited as a sidekick by the Middleman (Matt Keeslar) after he sees her attack a "hentai tentacle monster" with a letter opener. (The word "hentai" alone should raise goose flesh on certain viewers.) A square-jawed milk-drinker, exceedingly all-American in the way that spoof heroes often are, the Middleman is also a little dark, as if the clean-cuttedness were a kind of candy-coating on a potentially explosive soul. He has no trouble with violence.

Like the Men in Black, Middleman and Wendy wear matching suits -- Eisenhower jackets, which makes him look like a park ranger and her like a chauffeur -- and work for an organization so secret that they have no idea who runs it. (Their only other associate is a grumpy humanoid robot named Ida, played by Mary Pat Gleason.) They talk to each other at top speed, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the "Gilmore Girls" or anything that Aaron Sorkin gets involved with.

Like the comic book, which is studded with nods to the Rutles and the Church of the Subgenius, the TV "Middleman" is pop-culturally allusive, in ways incidental ("Let her go, Blofeld"), overt (an "Avengers" pastiche) and obscure (name-checking lesser-known comics like "Mouse Guard"). It satirizes the conventions of both comic books and television shows, as in a supertitle reading, "Jolly Fats Wehawkin Employment Agency, exactly 3 minutes, 10 seconds later," which is the length not of the break in the action but of the commercial break that precedes it. Grillo-Marxuach also has a penchant for dumb foreign-language jokes: An Italian restaurant is called Il Mutande Grandissimo, which translates as the Really Big Underpants.

The adventuring is balanced with well-executed, twentysomething domestic comedy. Brit Morgan plays Lacey, Wendy's roommate, a self-described "confrontational spoken-word performance artist" and animal activist (when we meet her she is painting a sign that reads "French Cuisine Kills Bunnies"). Boyfriend Ben (Stephen Sowan) breaks up with her because a teacher in film school tells him there's not enough pain in his life. ("Do you have any idea how that stings, to know that you have no hurt on the inside?" as he shoots her reaction.

As both the thing and the parody of the thing, it's in the same class as shows like "Batman" and "Get Smart," which worked both as comedies and, if you were young or willing enough, as adventures.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The Middleman'

Where: ABC Family

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14 DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

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