THE MIDDLEMAN: PILOT EPISODE
Created and Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
Airdate: June 16, 2008 on ABC Family
Javier Grillo-Marxuach has an extensive background as a screenwriter and producer. His credits include SEAQUEST DSV, THE PRETENDER, CHARMED, THE DEAD ZONE, JAKE 2.0, LOST, and MEDIUM. But in the world of Hollywood, nothing is a given, no matter how good you might be. Javi discovered this many years back when he wrote a spec pilot called THE MIDDLEMAN that didn’t get off the ground. Undeterred, and encouraged by comics maestro Paul Dini, Grillo-Marxuach took the pilot to Viper Comics and turned it into a four-issue miniseries and graphic novel that became one of the biggest indy success stories of the year when it came out. Now, in a glorious bit of “full circle,” the book has been optioned by ABC Family and makes its debut on the home screen next month. The question is: how much of the pilot turned comic made it back into the actual pilot? And the answer is, much to my surprise, about 98%. It’s quite astonishing, really.
The basic story remains the same, of course. Wendy Watson, fresh out of art school, is working a temp job at a DNA splicing company when a nasty monster made up of human body parts escapes and threatens her life. Unfazed by that turn of events, she catches the eye of The Middleman when he arrives on the scene to take the monster down. At the end of her rope, she later finds herself offered the job of becoming his new sidekick, joining his crazy world of battling comic-book evil, bantering with his snarky robot secretary Ida, and keeping The Middleman from putting the moves on her roommate. And her first assignment involves a super-intelligent ape that wants to become a mobster.
What made THE MIDDLEMAN comic so glorious the first time I read it was its sense of fun and adventure; the characters had fun being who they were, and their dialogue was razor sharp and loaded with laughs. At that point, I think I somewhat assumed that perhaps those traits were embellished once the property made it to print, but this pilot episode shows that to be untrue; almost every single line of dialogue from the graphic novel appears here in this episode. At times that can be somewhat daunting, but it comes down to having actors who can pull it off. And Javier and his production team really got lucky- they cast the series very, very well.
As the center of the series, Natalie Morales as Wendy pretty much has to carry the entire enterprise on her shoulders and she proves capable from the first frame of film she appears in. She dryly funny, carries herself with a sort of “jaded” body language, and possesses the keen self-awareness of the absurdity of what happens to her life. She’s also quite adept at whipping through the large chunks of dialogue she’s given. As a somewhat unknown, she also doesn’t bring any baggage to the part, ultimately making her an inspired choice. She made this episode work for me, period.
The Middleman himself is played by Matt Keeslar, and he is an immediate perfect choice from the physical side of things- he’s a dead ringer for artist Les McClane’s take on the character. But early in the episode I had some doubts about him. In his first couple of scenes he seems uncomfortable with what he’s doing, and he struggles with the larger pieces of script he has to deliver, using an odd cadence. It took me a minute, but I realized that it sounded as if he was mimicking Brad Pitt’s mannerisms from the OCEAN’S films. However, as the episode progresses, he seems to become more comfortable and his performance becomes a bit more natural. He also develops some natural chemistry with Morales, making you believe these two really could become close friends and co-workers.
The direction by Chechik is solid, as he does his best to make the pilot look more expensive than it was. He uses a number of effective wide shots to set scene and take the eye away from details that a close-up might jar the viewer. And again, he gets good performances out of his actors, keeping the focus more on the characters than on the odd things that are happening to them.
What is missing or changed from the comic version generally comes down to budget, and nothing really alters the story or the humor, so it does no damage. I was entertained by the episode, as I have been by the three volumes of the graphic novel series, and I was pleased to see something that ages 10-70 could watch together and enjoy. The one real challenge (beyond the Nielsens) the series faces is maintaining the weird; we’re getting thirteen episodes of this wonderful nonsense. Should be a lot of fun to see if the creative team can pull it off.