The Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach
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When The Middleman went off the air in 2008 after a too-short summer run, one comfort for the series’ devoted fans was the hope that the show would have a long life on DVD, where it would be discovered by people who missed it the first time around. That long life begins now, as The Middleman: The Complete Series arrives from Shout! Factory, complete with all 12 episodes of Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s science-fiction/superhero/secret-agent comedy, plus copious behind-the-scenes featurettes. As Grillo-Marxuach prepares for a big Middleman push at San Diego Comic-Con, the former Charmed, Lost, and Medium writer-producer spoke with The A.V. Club about the possible fate of The Middleman, its origins (and future) as a comic book, and why he doesn’t believe in long-term planning in the TV business.
AVC: You’ve said that there’s an element of “never say never” when it comes to The Middleman, and that if the DVD sales are strong enough, maybe the show could continue in some form. Have you been approached about that, or is it just a hope at this point?
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It isn’t something I’d have to be approached about, because I’m sort of driving a lot of it. [Laughs.] ABC Family and I conspired together to do the 13th episode as a comic book, which was part of the deal we made when the show went off the air. They still really support the show; they love the show. They said, “Let’s put some money aside so we can finance the completion of the season.” So I’ve been working on that with Viper Comics and Les McClaine. A lot of work has been going on since the show went off the air. I’ve been working with Shout! Factory very closely. Because I’m such a nerd, I literally had the art department give me all the key art from the show on a hard drive, and I’ve kept all this other memorabilia from the show too. A lot of those resources are the things Shout! Factory used to make the DVD set. As of July, it’ll be out there in the world, and we’ll see who approaches me, I don’t know. I’ve certainly been doing everything I can to promote the completion of the show while still trying to make a living. 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. Ultimately, there may be a critical mass. The show is owned by ABC Family; they produced the show with their in-house studio and they own the property, so they may look at the DVD sales and decide they want to put it back on the air. Or somebody else within Disney. Or it may come from outside. It’s all up to the gods of DVD sales right now.
AVC: You mention all the memorabilia on the DVD, but what’s become of the list of pop-culture references you used to provide for every episode on your website? It seems to have disappeared from the Middleblog, and it’s not on the DVD anywhere.
JG: I redid the Middleblog; it’s now moving to O2STK.com. And one of the things that I have to do is… There are 12 episodes, so it’s a little bit time-consuming to catalog all the pop-culture references, but I’ll probably be reposting them on the new website. The other thing we’re doing on O2STK is, y’know, we have four commentaries on the DVD set, so there are still eight episodes that are un-commented on. So I’m doing these reaction commentaries, where literally we just sit in front of a camera and watch the show and kind of Rifftrax the show. So there’s already two of those there—one with Natalie [Morales] for episode nine, one with Andy Reaser and Drew Tyler Bell for the vampire puppet show. So that site will keep developing, and we’ll keep putting up some of the content from the original Middleblog, and some new stuff to complement the DVD.
AVC: Being part of the geek community yourself, you know how proprietary and fickle fans can be. Do you a feel a sense of relief that you’ve created 12 strong episodes, and that if it never goes any further, at least that means you can’t screw it up?
JG: Well I hope you’re right! [Laughs.] That’d be pretty cool. In a weird way, I feel like we made 12 carefully handcrafted episodes that we’re all really proud of. It’s not all me; there’s a crew of 100 people that worked on the show. There’s a team of writers who are all really, really gifted people. We made 12 episodes we’re proud of, and we just hope other people feel the same way we do. One of the nice things about the support we’ve gotten from the media is that we do get the sense that other people really like the show. 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. [Laughs.] And it might actually keep me off my therapist’s couch for a few weeks, so I appreciate that you said it.
AVC: Though the comic is good, it’s hard to read it after seeing the series and not imagine it as a TV show.
JG: Yes, and the nice thing about TV shows is that you have so many people working on them. That first pilot script I wrote in a vacuum, and then when I turned it into a comic, I got to work with Les McClaine, and Les brought his own stuff to it. Les worked right off the TV script. There were never any comic-book scripts. The Mexican-wrestler script was our second episode. And then the third graphic-novel script, we didn’t adapt for TV, because the show went its own direction.
What happens is, the more people get attached to it, the richer it gets, and the more layers get built into it. Because I work in TV, I’m a huge believer in collaboration. 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. If for some reason you look at the TV show and think “Wow, there’s so much more to this than there was in the comic,” I don’t think it’s because one’s necessarily better than the other, but because one has a lot more input from a lot more people who are really trying to make it the best it can be. You can’t deny that effect. You work with guys like Hans Beimler or Jordan Rosenberg or Jeremiah Chechik or Andy Reaser or Sarah Watson or any of our other writers and directors, and you just wind up with something that gets better because it ages and gets more seasoned. So I think the difference between the comic and the TV show is partly because The Middleman was initially meant to be on TV, and partly because a lot of great minds came together to make it the best show it could be.
AVC: The cast must have some input as well. Your heroine has lines in the comic that are fairly amusing, but when Natalie Morales says them, they’re laugh-out-loud funny.
JG: Yeah, I think that’s what great actors will do for you. Les as an illustrator is a great actor; he gives you great expressions on characters. But when you’ve got all these other people coming in and giving it their own spin, you’re going to get magic.
AVC: How did you find Morales? She hadn’t done much before The Middleman.
JG: The show was cast by Amy Britt and Anya Colloff, who cast a lot of Joss Whedon’s material. They did Angel and Firefly and Buffy. And it was one of those things where the process just works. You hire the best people you can, and then all of a sudden, these great actors come through the door. It was a little different with Matt Keeslar, because I had seen him in The Last Days Of Disco and I knew he would be my Middleman. So even though we auditioned a couple of people, it was really just so I could get Matt to come in and I could say, “Please come do my show!” And he graciously took me up on it.
In the comic book, Wendy wasn’t Latina. She’s actually a white redhead from Iowa, but ABC Family told me they wanted a Latina leading lady for the show. 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. Once we came to a meeting of minds on that, it just became about casting. Amy and Anya brought in Natalie—who had only done like a CSI—and she kind of owned the role. The more she read for us, the more she owned it. She became the natural choice after all. We realized, “This is her. We found her.” It’s nice because people like Amy and Anya make my life easier. They make people like me look good. [Laughs.]
AVC: How far ahead had you thought the series out? Were you able to think beyond the first season?
JG: We had this idea that if we had a season two, we would start it as though it were actually the beginning of season seven… as though we went through a time warp and we had no choice but to start shooting. It was going to be like Wendy already had a protégé of her own, and she’d been Middleman for a few years, but they have to go find Matt, who was like in a monastery in Tibet. One of the things I learned from working on Lost, where we figured out a lot of the mythology in advance, and then working with Glenn Gordon Caron, who was the showrunner on Medium and created Moonlighting, is that sometimes having too much stuff thought out kind of handcuffs you. Glenn is a big improviser. He believes you should play it like jazz—lay down a lot of riffs and then let people pick them up.
So I always thought we’d just come up with some cool stuff and let the writers play with it together, and see what comes out. And you can see a lot of stuff from the comic book in the episodes, like Fat Boy and Manservant Neville, but that’s all stuff we just sort of threw up there on the Chinese menu we call our whiteboards. Slowly, the mythology evolved. Even though it may seem like it from my web presence, I’m not a very megalomaniacal show creator. I laid out a voice and a tone and a theme, and I really tried to let the writers play in that playground as much as they could, and we kind of created it together. What would have been nice about a second season is, we’d have had this great jazz band that was used to playing together, and we could’ve seen how we’d riff on something new. I think you get a lot more satisfying stories and drama that way, if you don’t put everything in a frame immediately. On Battlestar Galactica, Ron Moore was very upfront about saying, “We’ve got some ideas, but it’s not set in stone, and we’re going to take it where it takes us.” And Galactica ended just fine. I don’t know what you thought about it, but I thought the finale was pretty awesome.
AVC: Surely you can understand the impulse among fans to want a guiding presence who knows where everything’s going from the very beginning.
JG: I don’t know; I think that can become a real cage. You can say we figured everything out and it’s all written in a big notebook locked in a vault on a stage in Van Nuys, and only we know about it. But even George Lucas, if you read his early interviews from the ’80s, he’s like, “Well, there’ll be nine Star Wars movies and three trilogies.” And then later on, he’s saying, “No, there were always going to be six movies. There was never a third trilogy.” The stench of revisionism starts to permeate everything you do, if you pretend like you know everything upfront. I’d rather just tell the fans, “I’ve got some ideas, trust me, I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing this for a while, please just come and listen to us play, and I promise you’ll be entertained.” I think that’s just a better contract to make than to say, “I know everything! Come to me for answers!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of which, do you know what’s going to happen on Lost next year?
JG: I actually have not watched the show since I left. I’m really curious. I’ll probably come back and watch the series finale when they do it, just to see if it’s actually anything like what we discussed, or if it developed beyond that. I’m not speaking out of animosity or anything, it’s just I’ve been busy with other stuff. I’m curious to see what they do. When we started working in Lost, we met for about three months while the pilot was being written and shot and produced, and we came up with the basic mythology for the show and the character backstories and all that. And obviously the show kept developing after I left. So my biggest curiosity is, “Will it be the thing we talked about, or something different?” I talk to those guys every once in a while, but I don’t really ask them what they’re going to do. I’d rather see how it turns out.
AVC: What are you doing next?
JG: I’m going to go work on Day One, which is an NBC miniseries by this guy Jesse Alexander, who was one of the chief masterminds behind Heroes, and was J.J. Abrams’ associate during the Alias period, and who also worked on the conception of Lost. Day One is a kind of survival thriller, set around an apartment complex in southern California on the week that giant monoliths sprout from the earth and disrupt the entire flow of the planet. It’s sort of about how this community comes together to survive. They’re not the most important players in the drama, necessarily; they’re people whose destinies entwine them with what’s going on. It’s really about how this community comes together in the face of this life-changing event. NBC’s going to show it in March of 2010 after the Winter Olympics, and it’s going to be a big event for them. They’re going to do a 13-episode mini. It’s going to be me, Jesse, Jeph Loeb, Erik Oleson, who’s worked on Kings… a really nice brain trust of genre-heads coming together to do a new take on something that’s like what Lost and War Of The Worlds and all that have brought to the table. It’ll be cool to be on a next-gen sci-fi show with some really wonderful friends and creators. That’s where I’m going to be most of 2009 and ’10.