The Middleman: Good Show, Wrong Network

Most series fail on their own merits or lack thereof, but every so often a show runs into problems because it flies in the face of the overall tone of its network. The Fox sitcom Back to You didn't catch on in large part because with its middle-aged stars, it just seemed like it belonged on CBS. And all of the recent CBS attempts to develop one-hour shows outside its procedural specialty have failed.

A current example of a very promising show that's way out of place on its current network is The Middleman, the clever action/superhero spoof that debuted in June on ABC Family. Just as Comic-Con was about to get under way, it was announced that the planned 13-episode first season had been cut to 12, something that is almost always a prelude to a cancellation. The precarious state of The Middleman comes despite generally good reviews, better reviews in fact than the network's more highly touted The Secret Life of the American Teenager has received.

The problem is that most of the series that have succeeded on ABC Family, notably Greek and Kyle XY, are geared towards teenagers. These aren't necessarily family shows in the traditional sense. The kids on Greek aren't as lurid as those you might see on Gossip Girl, but it's understood that they are drinking and having sex and doing all those things you told your parents you didn't do. But their main appeal is among the young, and if we know anything about modern television, it's that teen shows have influence way beyond their ratings.

The Middleman, however, is clearly a show for adults: not because it has a high sex-violence-bad language quotient, but because its primary pleasures come from parody and dialogue, along with a generous helping of "the only people who will get this joke are those who won't find it offensive" banter straight out Pee Wee's Playhouse. The show hearkens back to an era in which comic books (the show was adapted from was a comic) weren't so deadly serious. With its low special effects budget and the assurance that nothing important is at stake, The Middleman is virtually the anti-Heroes.

The show stars Matt Keeslar as the title character, a stolid Gary Cooper type recruited by the proverbial shadowy organization to fight evil in all its human and alien forms. Natalie Morales is Wendy Watson, a hopeless temp whose best quality, unflappability in the face of extreme danger, recommended her for the role of apprentice to the Middleman. So far at least, there's a blessed lack of sexual tension in their relationship, although the Middleman and Wendy's roommate have a mutual crush.

Describing the plots on The Middleman might give some idea that saving the world isn't really what this show is about. The pilot dealt with super-intelligent gorillas and a mad scientist played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, and the most recent episode was centered around a cursed tuba rescued from the Titanic. The show tries out weird little jokes such as showing what time it is in random time zones around the world, and its best running gag involves loud bleeping every time someone curses.

The series has some elements in common with the 1960s Batman, although it's not quite that ridiculous. A better comparison is the live-action version of The Tick, which was (this isn't a great omen) a noble failure earlier in this decade. But the pop culture references are thoroughly up to date, and the back-and-forth between Keeslar and Morales is reminiscent of writers' classics such as Moonlighting and Gilmore Girls (though not quite on the same level).

The question is whether the show has any future on ABC Family, which appears to have signed on with the thinking that it was going to be more of a live-action cartoon, with fewer in jokes and sexual innuendo, and less dialogue period. The Middleman started out at 8 PM its first two weeks, but was later moved to 10 PM, where ABC Family has never put one of its promising shows, and where it goes up against more serious competition for adult eyeballs (even in rerun season). Promotion for the series has never been all that strong and even now, with its season more than halfway done, it's still mostly being championed by critics. Even the fanboy community, which can be so vocal in support of a cult show, has been slow to sign on given the lack of traditional sci-fi elements here.

The series isn't perfect. Its weak link is the inexperienced Morales, who can do deadpan sarcasm but not much else. And the plots are almost totally disposable, acting as hangers on which to place jokes but not important in and of themselves. But The Middleman can't be allowed to just quietly disappear as the 2008 fall season kicks off. Somewhere, there's a network that can make a go of it. It would be a better fit almost anywhere else.