Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Middleman - Like Men In Black Meets Venture Brothers

After two episodes, I'm really enjoying The Middleman, ABC Family's new sci-fi series. Like Men In Black which takes the conceit that tabloid stories about aliens living on Earth are true, The Middleman takes the conceit that our world really does work like comic books—it's full of super villains which must be stopped by The Middleman. And like Venture Brothers, The Middleman takes a satirical look at the superhero world.

The story of The Middleman starts with his future sidekick, Wendy Watson working as a temp in a genetics laboratory. This being a sci-fi adventure, one of the genetic freaks (which looks like it wandered off from the set of Men in Black) in the lab escapes, trashing the lab, and nearly killing Wendy before The Middleman puts it down. This is where the MiB similarities end as The Middleman instead of zapping Wendy so she'll forget her experience instead threatens her and frames her so she gets fired and can't get another job until he chooses to recruit her as his sidekick. While it seems like a pretty "dickish" thing to do, as The Middleman is so straight-laced that he talks like teenager from the 1950s and never shows signs of anger.

The second episode alludes to a possible reason why this might be the case. The Middleman tells of being an offensive limeman on his high school football team. During one game, he was so anxious for it to be over so he could be with his girlfriend that he let his opposing lineman get past him and sack his quarterback. This caused the young quarterback to suffer a career-ending injury which haunts him to this day. In other words The Middleman is essentially a G-rated version of Brock Sampson, the Swedish killing machine from Venture Brothers. Like The Middleman, Brock is haunted by something he did while playing football—he killed a quarterback during practice by snapping his spine, the school takes away his scholarship and Brock joins the army. And again like Brock Sampson, The Middleman served in the military—in the pilot, he recalls a story of decking his superior officer who ordered him to leave his men. Brock Sampson has similar problems with authority which manifest themselves in a much more adult way on Venture Brothers.

And like Brock Sampson, The Middleman likes the ladies as he flirts shamelessly with Wendy's roommate—of course Brock does a whole lot more than flirt with women....So in my mind it's impossible to look at The Middleman without thinking about Brock Sampson. Each of these men is like the other's evil twin. Brock is the id unleashed, always acting on his impulses, killing, maiming, and bedding every woman meets. The Middleman on the other hand, is the id firmly suppressed by the super ego, he never swears, he never hurts anyone who isn't "evil," and he never gets past the playful flirting stage with a woman. Both characters are products tailored to the audience that they're aimed at on their respective channels—The Middleman for kids on ABC Family and Brock Sampson for adults on Adult Swim. It's rather ironic and says a lot about the diversity of today's entertainment when I can sit here comparing a cartoon to a live action show and it's the cartoon which is the violent, sexually explicit show which caters to adult audiences and the live action show is the kid friendly fun adventure.

There is also one big difference in tone. Venture Brothers skewers the Saturday morning cartoons that it spoofs, for example turning a beloved character like Johnny Quest into a pill-popping psychopath. The Middleman by contrast is practically a love letter to the comic books and television sci-fi which it lampoons. Filled with loving homages to sources as diverse as The Avengers and every big gorilla movie ever made, The Middleman is a gentle, fun adventure that can be enjoyed by all but the grumpiest members of the whole family can enjoy.

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