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, the results might look a lot like The Middleman, a wonderfully eccentric TV series that ran for 12 episodes last summer on ABC Family before disappearing into the rarefied realm where “unjustly ignored” cultural artifacts await their promotion to “cult favorite” status. Created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, The Middleman stars Natalie Morales as a lovelorn art student who gets recruited by straight-arrow covert operative Matt Keeslar to join an organization known as “The Middlemen,” who’ve been using comically fake IDs and advanced technology to combat “threats intra-, extra- and juxta-terrestrial” for generations. Whenever aliens infiltrate, or super-apes join the mob, or sorority houses get haunted, or trout-eating zombies arise, Morales and Keeslar rush to the rescue with weapons drawn and rapid-fire repartee at the ready.
Much of the fun of The Middleman derives from the density of the pop-culture references, which range from the geek-friendly (the comics Astro City and Mouse Guard get name-checked in the first episode, and every episode contains a Wilhelm scream, just like every Star Wars movie) to the idiosyncratic. (The episode about zombies features multiple nods to British rock legends The Zombies.) Grillo-Marxuach and company wink to the audience in the onscreen titles, as when they label a post-commercial scene as taking place “exactly 3 minutes, 10 seconds later.” And they maintain a light tone that runs the risk of making the show feel a little too low-stakes at times. But what makes The Middleman more than just a frothy goof is the depth of the performances—especially Morales’, which shifts easily from peppy to snide to heartbroken. The cast of The Middleman is so enjoyable to be around that they can convince almost any viewer of the virtues of forthrightness, forbearance, and the honest belief that “nothing’s cooler than standard black.”
Key features: Good-natured commentary tracks on selected episodes, and a whole disc’s worth of interviews and Internet podcasts.