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The Middleman died too soon, only to live on, like a trout-craving zombie

If you’ve never seen or even heard of the eccentric 2008 ABC Family series The Middleman, and you need some indication as to whether the show is something you might enjoy, let me ask this: Are you the kind of person who’d dig it if a TV episode about a zombie plague was littered with references to the ’60s British rock band The Zombies? I mean, c’mon. Tell me no.

The Middleman ran for 12 episodes in the summer of 2008, then disappeared, just out of reach, into the rarefied realm of the unjustly ignored, where ever since it’s been waiting to graduate to full-on “cult favorite” status. The people who made The Middleman were prepared for that to happen. They took what they were given and made it their own, stuffing the show with in-jokes and homages designed to reach exactly the people inclined to like this kind of show, whenever they’re ready. One of The Middleman’s writers, Andy Reaser, told me that even now, years after the show’s cancellation, the people who worked on it are still so hung up on the dream of this show that they email each other jokes that they could’ve used. (It also says something about The Middleman team’s devotion that when Reaser found out I was going to be writing about the show, he reached out and offered any help he could give, before it had even occurred to me to contact him.)

Here’s the best way to describe The Middleman: Imagine if Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino collaborated on a secret-agent/science-fiction/superhero script, then handed it off to be directed by John Carpenter, with cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld. Created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (who so believed in the premise that he wrote it as a comic book series first when he couldn’t sell it as a TV show), The Middleman stars Natalie Morales as lovelorn art student Wendy Watson, a.k.a. “Dub-Dub” or “Dubby.” She gets recruited by a straight-arrow covert operative known only as “The Middleman” (played by Matt Keeslar) to join an organization that’s been using comically fake IDs and advanced technology to combat “threats intra-, extra-, and juxta-terrestrial” for generations. Whenever aliens infiltrate, super-apes join the mob, sorority houses get haunted, or trout-craving zombies arise, Middlemen rush to the rescue, with weapons drawn and rapid-fire repartee at the ready.

The trout-craving zombies surface in the Reaser-penned episode “The Flying Fish Zombification.” Wendy receives a call from The Middleman’s acerbic android assistant Ida (Mary Pat Gleason), who explains that a man named Rod Argent was just attacked by his wife Bonnie Blue. While they were on a camping trip, Bonnie freaked out, started groaning, “Troooooout,” and threw an RV at Rod. After subduing Bonnie and determining that Rod hasn’t been turned into a zombie fish-fiend himself—which The Middleman does by threatening to kill Rod, just to make sure that he still has an instinct for self-preservation—the heroes investigate the Beechwood Park RV Park, where Wendy fights off and kills a Peruvian Flying Pike, just as Ida is informing The Middleman that the only way to save Bonnie is to capture the rare Peruvian Flying Pike alive.

Luckily, Wendy notices that the pike bears the brand of the nearby Odessey And Oracle Fish Hatchery, so the two Middlemen go there and discover tanks full of pike, along with several goons preparing a shipment for a mysterious “Mr. White.” Realizing that a trout-craving zombie plague may be imminent, The Middleman searches for another victim to question, and comes up with Heidi, a wannabe spokesmodel who explains that her trout hunger started after she auditioned for a job promoting !!!!, a new energy drink whose name is “pronounced” by stomping feet, flashing palms, and grinning.

Wendy and The Middleman quickly find the !!!! factory, and confront Mr. White (played by Todd Stashwick), who confesses that he himself was infected by a Peruvian Flying Pike, and then was saved by an antidote provided by an Amazonian tribesman, which gave Mr. White the idea to manufacture a beverage laced with PFP venom and trout, thus creating scores of !!!! addicts. The heroes overcome Mr. White’s army of zombified !!!! spokesmodels, then defeat Mr. White himself. (He gives off a little Wilhelm Scream as he goes down, as is typical of Middleman villains.) Any remaining !!!! zombies are cured by an antidote synthesized from a pike The Middleman liberated from the Odessey Hatchery, carrying the beast out in a giant, fish-sized scuba-suit.

As always with The Middleman, the primary world-saving plot is just one major element of “The Flying Fish Zombification.” There’s also a running passive-aggressive tussle between Wendy and The Middleman over the former’s endorsement by the hard-to-please Middleman trainer Sensei Ping. Initially, The Middleman is proud that the sidekick he himself recruited has impressed his sensei, but the more Wendy tosses Sensei Ping quotes in his face, and demonstrates special martial-arts moves that The Middleman thought only he’d been taught, the more jealous the boss becomes. Eventually, Wendy begins to suspect that The Middleman’s grudge is causing him to overstate the trout-craving zombie threat, just to sabotage Wendy’s evening plans.

Those plans constitute the other big plot thread in “The Flying Fish Zombification.” As the on-screen titles frequently explain, Wendy shares “An Illegal Sublet With Another Young, Photogenic Artist,” Lacey Thornfield (Brit Morgan), and Wendy and Lacey host an event called “Art Crawl” in their building, featuring painting and performance art. Their cool neighbor Noser (Jake Smollet) regularly does an act he calls “Stump The Band,” in which he stands onstage with a guitar, takes requests from the audience, and then nods, “Yeah, I know it,” without ever playing a note. Their annoying neighbor Pip (Drew Tyler Bell) intends to torture the crowd with his epic monologue “Hey Mr. God,” featuring such truth-to-power lines like, “What’s with all the poor people?!” Lacey, meanwhile, is known for her “confrontational spoken-word stylings,” which she’s looking forward to showing off to her world-renowned humanitarian mother Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., Ph.D. (Middleman characters always include both honorifics when saying Dr. Thornfield’s name.) But Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., Ph.D. gets called away for a meeting with Henry Kissinger—“Cambodia, Chile… now Art Crawl,” Wendy laments—and it doesn’t help Lacey’s mood that Wendy’s own Art Crawl arrival keeps getting delayed by Middleman business. Then, when Wendy finally does show up, and Lacey starts to perform, The Middleman pops in and takes Wendy away again. The Middleman was always attuned to that reliable old Marvel Comics theme: sometimes superheroism sucks.

By and large, The Middleman writers, directors, and cast maintained a breezy tone, which sometimes made the show feel a little too low-stakes. But any frothy goofiness was usually countered by the depth of the performances—especially from Morales, who shifts easily from peppy to snide to heartbroken. Plus, Grillo-Marxuach and company knew just what to nick from other pop-savvy and/or science-fiction-oriented series. At its best—and The Middleman had a remarkably high batting average over the course of its 12 episodes—the show could simultaneously recall The Venture Brothers in its allusions to a long, noble, gradually decaying legacy, Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its celebration of a smart-mouthed, uncannily gifted heroine, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in its vision of a meaningless universe that presents the illusion of purpose via a complex bureaucracy, and Gilmore Girls in its rapid-fire patter, rife with obscure pop-culture references. 

The Zombies jokes in “The Flying Fish Zombification” are a fine example of that last one. When I called up Reaser to talk about this episode, he told me, “Javy had decided in the middle of the second episode that we should all pick something to reference religiously in all of our episodes with all of our background characters and locations. Mine were a little more literal than everyone else’s.” Hence: A zombie victim named after Zombies organist Rod Argent; a fish hatchery named for the band’s best-known album; mentions of the Grundy Fish Market (for drummer Hugh Grundy) and Atkinson Insane Asylum (for guitarist Paul Atkinson); and Wendy being introduced as “Ms. Blunstone” of the “Time Of The Season” insurance company. (“Bonnie Blue” and “Heidi,” however, are not Zombies references; those are the names of Reaser’s cats.)

“Javy’s marching orders were to just sort of make everything as crazy as possible,” Reaser told me. For example, Reaser came up with the idea of trout-craving zombies when he was musing in the writers’ room about how it had always bothered him that the ghouls in Night Of The Living Dead were saying ‘brains’ when they didn’t have lips. “Trooooout!” made much more sense.

“There really wasn’t anything about the show that wasn’t fun,” Reaser explained. “One thing Javy had said is that on all his favorite shows, like the Star Treks he watched religiously, he always got excited when he could tell when an episode was written by a certain writer, or writing team. And he wanted us to embrace that, rather than saying, ‘The show has one voice.’ He’d had years and years of experiences on writing staffs, some of which were fun and some of which were nightmarish. He was very determined to make this a positive and fun experience, and he was determined that we could make a good show without anyone being a dick.”

Grillo-Marxuach said much the same to me when I interviewed him back in 2009, in conjunction with The Middleman DVD release. “I’m a huge believer in collaboration,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a TV auteur. There’s somebody who brings a vision, and then a huge amount of people work to make it better.” Even the casting ended up being collaborative. Grillo-Marxuach picked Keeslar himself, but ABC Family requested that Wendy be a Latina. “In the comic book…  she’s actually a white redhead from Iowa. I didn’t want to rewrite the script so that when the character gets mad she breaks into Spanish spontaneously. I’m Puerto Rican, and I don’t do that. ABC Family agreed that Wendy should be what I call ‘Latina Like Me,’ not the stereotypical version of the Latina role.”

Whatever the logic behind the casting, the chemistry between Keeslar and Morales was one of the keys to The Middleman’s creative (albeit not commercial) success. It’s not just that the two actors played the heroes’ sibling-like dynamic so well; it’s that the differences between the characters exemplified what the show was about. When Wendy says that she likes skull decals and The Middleman mutters, “Nothing’s cooler than standard black”—that’s the show, right there. The Middleman took the fundamentals of science-fiction/superhero action—which were pretty darn cool already—and personalized them, with skulls. As a result, Middleman fans (of which I am one) grew so attached to the characters that they became like friends of ours.

That’s why when Middleman fans reminisce about the series, it’s not so much the stories we kick around. We remember the way Lacey and Dubby chant “Art Crawl!” to pump each other up; the way the bad guys explain themselves by saying, “My plan was sheer elegance in its simplicity;” the different fake jobs and IDs that The Middleman would come up with; and the pleasure of linguistically spectacular Middleman lines like, “I’m betting bucks to beans it’s a bad guy,” and, “It’s an aces-high-According-To-Hoyle fantastic deal!” (Really, any Middleman fan who wants to entice novices should just show the clip compilation below, which contains much of what Middleman devotees are devoted to.)

Even now, there’s not a lot of those Middleman fans, but the ranks are growing, incrementally. Grillo-Marxuach said to me, “In a weird way, I feel like we made 12 carefully handcrafted episodes that we’re all really proud of. … I came up with the idea for The Middleman in ’97 and wrote the pilot in ’98, and I fought a hard battle for a long time until it became a comic book, and slowly allies started building and it became a TV series. So the idea that I can’t screw it up now is actually tremendously comforting to me. … The great thing about the era of DVDs is that DVDs are like books—they’ll be on shelves, and people will pass them around.” To which Reaser adds, “Our fans are just really loyal. I don’t know a lot of people who just watched the show once and hated it. They may have fallen in love with it after the fact, but it’s still very rewarding.”

If it makes The Middleman creative team feel any better, they can look at what happened with The Zombies. After scoring big hits in the mid-’60s with the moody pop singles “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” The Zombies released a string of outstanding singles that failed to catch on in the U.S. or UK, and then they recorded Odessey And Oracle, one of the most original and beautiful pop albums of its decade. But the record stiffed when it was released in 1968, and only started to draw notice when the belatedly released single “Time Of The Season” became an unexpected hit in 1969, by which point the band had broken up and singer Colin Blunstone had gone solo. For the next decade, the major rock critics largely ignored The Zombies. In the original 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh only reviews a 1973 repackaging of Odessey, which he gives two stars out of five and calls “mediocre.” For the 1983 Rolling Stone guide, Marsh adds a three-star review of a collection of early Zombies singles, but still gets basic facts about the band wrong. In 1992, the Rolling Stone guide shifted the Zombies reviews to Paul Evans, who ups the Odessey and singles-collection grades to three and a half stars each. The 2004 edition is more comprehensive, and grants Odessey And Oracle four stars. By the end of the ’00s, rock magazines on both sides of the Atlantic—including Rolling Stone—were listing Odessey And Oracle among the top albums of all time. (Rolling Stone had it at No. 80, which is not bad for something so “mediocre.”)

Nothing changed about The Zombies’ music in the interim, just as nothing will change about “The Flying Fish Zombification” or the other Middleman episodes in the years to come. It’s just that it takes time for some products to make their way to the people most inclined to have a taste for them. Maybe fans didn’t get to sample The Middleman until after it was gone. But all it takes is one sip.

Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Roseanne, “Wait Til Your Father Gets Home”