Alibi V.17 No.26 • June 26-July 2, 2008 

Idiot Box

Super Salad

“The Middleman” on ABC Family

In a summer filled with comic book movies (Iron Man, The Hulk, Wanted, Hellboy 2), it seems inevitable that TV would go looking to the superpowered subgenre for inspiration. ABC Family jumped on that bandwagon recently, debuting the wacky superhero parody “The Middleman.”

Based on an obscure 2005 graphic novel series by writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach and artist Les McClaine, “The Middleman” introduces audiences to Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), a struggling artist working for a temp agency. While answering phones at a genetic engineering lab (and encountering a tentacled monster), Wendy crosses paths with The Middleman (Matt Keeslar)--a lantern-jawed superhero who uses an array of high-tech weapons to fight monsters, aliens and the occasional mad scientist bent on world domination. Offered a job as his sidekick, Wendy reluctantly (at first) agrees. Now she’s suited up alongside The Middleman fighting mystical mud monsters and super-intelligent apes with Tommy guns.

Obviously, “The Middleman” keeps its tongue planted firmly in cheek. While it never breaks the third wall (à la the original “Batman” TV series), it does feature a nonstop string of self-referential jokes. (Any TV show that name-drops Mouse Guard earns some serious street cred in comic book shops across America.) With its high-tech gadgetry and well-dressed heroes, “The Middleman” looks and feels a lot like Men in Black, which also started out life as an obscure sci-fi comic book.

Thanks to the rapid-fire dialogue, jokes fly at a fast and furious pace and postmodern references abound. Still, it would probably be a mistake to label “The Middleman” as even slightly edgy. (Though jokes about Wendy being a “beard” for her arty film school boyfriend nearly qualify.) Silly puns, slapstick action and a sense of humor that would make Chuck Jones proud mean “The Middleman” is a solid fit amid ABC Family’s entertainingly juvenile lineup.

Fueling this dialogue logjam is the personality-clash camaraderie of square, milk-drinking hero The Middleman and his new hire, the reluctantly sexy, mostly jaded Wendy. It’s a dynamic that traces back at least to the ’60s “Avengers” TV series starring Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackmon (later Diana Rigg). Keeslar and Morales are well-cast, playing their roles rather broadly, but stopping short of complete stereotypes. (This is the sort of show, after all, that sees fit to admonish mad scientists for their lengthy “take over the world” speeches.)

Those looking for the unhinged humor of FOX’s late, lamented superhero lampoon “The Tick” or Cartoon Network’s masterful “The Venture Brothers” may find themselves underwhelmed. But viewers with a taste for intentionally cheesy special effects, corny jokes and an avalanche of pop cultural references are apt to brand “The Middleman” airy, good-natured goofery.

“The Middleman” airs every Monday at 8 p.m. on ABC Family.