Two or three years from now, you'll be thrusting the DVDs of trainee-superhero show The Middleman at your friends and telling them they must check out this awesome show. It has everything: wit, subversiveness, charm, audacious scifi concepts, and the perfect blend of the spy, superhero and X-Files-y genres. "I was one of the first people to start watching it on ABC Family," you'll boast. Will your future self be lying? That all depends your present self. Don't make your future self want to smack your present self in the head! Below the fold, six reasons why you should be watching The Middleman, plus some other stuff that's on TV this week.
Reasons your future self will be mad at you if you're not watching The Middleman now:
1) The characters have conflict without hating each other or being drama queens. And they're likeable. Really. I know, it's hard to imagine. When trainee superhero Wendy Watson lets her boss, the Middleman, down, he gives her a really sweet talk about how sometimes you have to follow your emotions and it's okay. The characters all insult each other, but you can tell they like each other, which is rarer than it should be. (Except for Ada, the robot secretary, who seems to hate everybody for reals.) The two leads, Natalie Morales and Matt Keeslar, manage to be likable, obnoxious, clever and dumb all at once. It's like watching a master class. Plus they're both as cute as buttons. (Okay, I'm shallow.) Keeslar is like a young Bruce Campbell sometimes, making his ridiculously square milk-drinking character seem the hippest person in the room.
2) It's actually funny. I don't know why this is, but most attempts at doing "funny" science fiction on U.S. television fall flat for me. Like the Sci Fi Channel's Eureka, which always seems a little too cute and full of pizzicato violins signifying "wackiness." But The Middleman is the rare scifi comedy that actually has humor, both through crackling dialog ("A man asked me that question once. I kicked his male reproductive organs into his watch pocket. Now he must check the time whenever he wishes to copulate") and through bizarre situations like Wendy assaulting a robot interrogation practice dummy. It's both witty and silly, without giving itself a sprained eye tendon from winking too much.
3) It's got a nice Men In Black vibe. In last week's episode, we learned that there are alien refugees living on Earth among us, disguising themselves as rich plastic surgery victims to explain their weird features. And our heroes aren't here to mess with the aliens, but to protect them and keep their secret for them. The world isn't just full of monsters and genetically modified gorilla gangsters trying to destroy everything, there are plenty of aliens and weird creatures who are neutral or good. And MM and Wendy, our heroes, are privy to this whole secret world in the process of saving it. It makes you want to know more.
4) Each episode is just crammed with stuff. Each of the show's episodes so far has had an engaging "A" plot, with some fun "B" plots involving Wendy's flighty roommate Lacey or her butthead ex-boyfriend Ben. There's always at least one or two fun twists, like Wendy having to fly down to Mexico to rescue the Middleman and their teacher, Sensei Ping from a ton of Mexican wrestlers who are using a perfect diamond to create an unbreakable force field inside a pyramid. That thing that so many shows do ineptly, where there's a big A plot and a personal B plot, really works here. I care equally about Wendy's work life and personal life and am happy to see them intersect.
5) There are insane gadgets. Like a scientific gadget that detects things beyond the realm of science, a BTRS scanner. And Wendy's ray gun, which sadly has "training wheels." And the big shiny answer ball, the HEYDAR, which plugs directly into Ada the android's head and lets her scan all of the world's information feeds. And the goggles which let Ada see through the Middleman's eyes. Plus teleporters! And the Middlemobile!
6) It's comic-booky, in the right way. Not surprisingly, with comics dominating the movie world, you're also seeing more of a comics influence on television, with shows like Heroes being self-consciously comic-booky. But The Middleman just revels in the best comic-book traditions, like mad science and crazy magic existing side-by-side. (The way you'll have Iron Man hanging out with Doctor Strange in Marvel Comics, for example.) It's not just based on a comic, it's actually a comic book in video form. The non-stop onslaught of superintelligent gorillas, weird aliens, crazy robots and more, reminds me of the best bits of Warren Ellis' Nextwave, Matt Fraction's Casanova and a whole host of great Fred Van Lente comics. That really should be all I need to say: "It's very Van Lente." And that should make you program your TiVo and stay home for it.
Reasons you can give your future self for not watching The Middleman:
Well, it is a bit fluffy sometimes, but it's a comedy, duh. The character of Noser, who apparently lives in the hallway outside Wendy's apartment and recites song lyrics, is a one-joke character who gets less funny every time he shows up. It won't make you debate afterwards as much as Lost or BSG, and it's not quite as clever as Doctor Who at its best. That's all I got.
So The Middleman is on tonight at 10 PM on ABC Family. It's about zombie trout and stuff, and it's going to be awesome. But what else is there to watch this week? Here's what I see:
Tonight at 8: there are two awesome competing movies: the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie on ABC Family, and White Chicks, the FBI weird prosthetic body transformation film, on FX. Also, neo-noir dimension-hopping show Charlie Jade is on tonight at 3:00 AM on Sci Fi. It's the episode "Dirty Laundry."
Tomorrow night, there's an "HBO First Look" at The Dark Knight at 9:30 on HBO, natch.
Wednesday night at 9, there's a new episode of PBS' science anthology series Nova ScienceNOW, focusing on birdsong and violent space weather. Meanwhile, the History Channel jumps on the Bat-mania bandwagon with Batman Unmasked: The Psychology Of The Dark Knight, also at 9. Here's a clip:
Thursday night, there's a new episode of horror anthology series Fear Itself on NBC at 10. Darren Lynn Bousman's episode, "New Year's Day," focuses on a young woman trying to escape from zombies in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Here's the previous episode, by Stuart Gordon: Also, the Sci Fi Channel is having a marathon of Jake 2.0, which was really like Chuck 1.0, all day Thursday.
Friday night, the Sci Fi Channel once again has its strongest original programming: the Doctor Who episode "Turn Left" at 9, followed by a new Stargate Atlantis, "The Seed." I loved "Turn Left," in which Donna visits an alternate world without a Doctor, almost as much as last week's episode, and you can read my recap here. As for "The Seed," all I really need to tell you is "Jewel Staite-centric episode." Apparently she gets infected by some kind of nasty spore or something. What do you care? It's Jewel Staite, on camera more than usual.
Saturday morning at 10, there's a new Ben 10: Alien Force, "Plumber's Helpers." A pair of alien plumbers kidnap Kevin, thinking he's an alien. That's on the Cartoon Network.
Sunday night at 11:30, the Cartoon Network has a new Venture Bros.: "Tears Of A Sea Cow." Also, ABC Family is showing the quaint old Tim Burton Batman 2:00 PM. To which I say, "Keep bustin'." And FX is showing Batman Begins at 8 PM.