A 1960s hero gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up in 2008. In the hands of most TV shows or comics, this storyline would have been full of silly fish-out-of-water jokes. Oh, he doesn't understand the internet! He's never seen an ipod! Etc. But The Middleman sidestepped all that stuff and went for the really interesting thing about its Sean Connery-inspired 60s hero: his attitudes to his job and to the opposite sex, as personified by Wendy.
The great thing about Kevin Sorbo's portrayal of the out-of-date Middleman was that he never crossed over into being just an annoying asswipe. He captures all of the fun - and all of the flaws - of the Connery Bond, without quite straying over into caricature territory. It's great having two stylized cartoon alpha males running around for a while, instead of just one.
And the real joke of the episode wasn't that Kevin Sorbo's Middleman was too old school. If anything, it was the reverse. Matt Keeslar's Middleman is the truly old-school one, as the Eisenhower reference at the very end of the episode makes clear. Sorbo is the new-fangled whippersnapper bring his up-to-date 1960s hedonistic ideas to the hallowed Middle-HQ. Even though he was Ida's boss first and she totally fawns over him, he's new to us, the viewer, and he seems more modern in some ways - maybe because a lot of spy movie/superhero cliches were last updated in the 1960s and haven't changed much since then.
It's a weirdly conservative moment when we realize we prefer the 1950s(ish) Middleman to the 1960s version, except that one big reason why Keeslar's Middleman is better is because he's quietly sorta-feminist. He never doubts Wendy, never questions her ability and never tries to punish her for having a sex or romantic life. He always supports her choices. He's like a 1950s guy, if the 1950s had been way less lame.
The way this episode tied the A-plot and the B-plot together was (sorry) sheer elegance in its simplicity. Sorbo's antique Middleman gives Wendy some advice about love (as we showcased yesterday) and even though she sort of knows he's full of it, she takes it on board. She's already nervous about her new relationship with Tyler, the weirdly flawless former almost-rockstar. And being told that Middlemen can't have love seems like an easy way out, or an easy explanation of why it'll never work with Tyler. And then you have that great scene where the real Middleman tells Wendy that Sorbo's version is full of it. "My choices are my own. And make no mistake, I've loved and been loved. If true love turns up on your doorstep and you turn it away, that's on you. Not the job or anything else." Keeslar's delivery actually got me a bit misty.
And yet Sorbo's Middleman is right about some stuff, too - like the fact that Wendy doesn't have to wear that dorky uniform any more. And just seeing that there are other ways of doing things, that the past Middlemen weren't just cookie-cutter versions of the current one, is liberating. Especially since we know that Wendy's supposed to take over as the Middle-person at some point, and she can't be a carbon copy of Matt Keeslar.
The few 1960s jokes we got were genuinely, brilliantly funny. The Star Trek thing, for example, was great. They're looking at Sorbo like he's an insane dork for quoting Trek, and he thinks it's because they've never heard of this obscure canceled show. All of the spy-mission stuff, including the zany card game, the catsuit, the bikini-clad landing in the supervillain HQ, was just spot-on perfect.
My main complaint about this episode was the lack of Lacey and Sorbo interaction. In fact, there wasn't nearly enough Lacey in this episode. I like Tyler, in his weirdly flawless glory (seriously, why does he have no flaws??) but if he's going to push Lacey out of her position as main supporting character, then he's got to go. I wanted a whole sequence of Lacey and Sorbo's Middleman going on a date together, perhaps with Keeslar's version scowling from the sidelines. Although I think Lacey would have seen through Guy by the end of the evening.