The Spellout

Art, Culture & Unavoidable Spite

Category: Television

“The Middleman”: Zombies, masked wrestlers and genius

The Middleman

THE MIDDLEMAN: In 17 hours, when Sensei Ping fails to show up for his traditional breakfast of chicken feet at the Golden Ocean Teahouse in Chinatown, the Clan of the Pointed Stick will immediately send out three highly-trained Shiyuu fighters …

WENDY “DUBBY” WATSON: Reinforcements! Awesome.

MM: … to kill us.

WW: What? That sucks!

MM: Well, la-di-da, Dubby! You must be mistaking the Clan of the Pointed Stick for one of the rational societies of paranoid, celibate martial artists!

Such is daily life in the world of “The Middleman,” a comedy-adventure series created by “Lost” writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who adapted his own comic book to make this short-lived ABC Family program. The show’s host network proved to be both blessing and curse: ABC Family executives reportedly loved the show, but the necessary audience of geeks, Ain’t It Cool News talkbackers and Adam West-era “Batman” fanatics avoided the network — and the show — like a plague. They would have preferred to face a hundred Shiyuu fighters than to risk catching even five seconds of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” “The Middleman’s” death warrant was signed from the get.

Thankfully, ABC Family popped for a classy, four-disc “Middleman” DVD set, which you can get today for a pittance — anywhere from $14 (at Half.com) to $22 (at DeepDiscount.com). You can get to know the entire Middle-universe, from (aerosol) soup-to-nuts — the square-jawed, cliche-spouting title character (Matt Keeslar, note-perfect), the starving artist and Middleman-in-training Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales, funny and heart-stoppingly gorgeous), the cranky android Ida (Mary Pat Gleason, who nearly steals every episode), Wendy’s arty friends Lacey and Noser (Brit Morgan and Jake Smollett) and the supporting cast of zombie trout, alien boy bands, cursed tubas and vampire puppets —  for a price that’s far, far less than this wonderful, pop culture reference-heavy series is worth.

I probably don’t have to to tell you that I love this show. Mix “The Avengers” with “Buckaroo Banzai” and “Get Smart” and you’re still nowhere near it. “The Middleman” is more addictive than a daily breakfast of chicken feet, and I can’t wait for you to get the taste. Try it.

Fifteen ways to love your “Leverage”

Leverage
Ford’s Five: Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, Timothy Hutton, Beth Riesgraf and Aldis Hodge.

I can think of at least 15 reasons you should be watching “Leverage,” the Dean Devlin-produced action-comedy whose first season comes out on DVD tomorrow, June 14, and whose second season begins this Wednesday, June 15 on TNT. To wit:

1. It’s the only show on TNT that’s not a police or medical procedural. In fact, I think it may be the only show in the whole of television that’s not a police or medical procedural. It’s a good, old-fashioned bad-people-doing-good-things show in the tradition of “The Saint,” “The A-Team” and “The Equalizer.”

2. The show is well-acted. Gina Bellman, Aldis Hodge, Timothy Hutton, Christian Kane and Beth Riesgraf inhabit their characters from episode one — a rarity for series television.

3. “Leverage” looks great — as colorful and scenic as Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” movies, which the show resembles in its camera work, its editing, its dialogue and even its music.

4. Hutton’s character, Nathan Ford, is shaded; he’s noble, well-intentioned and brilliant, but also aloof, slovenly and a fall-down drunk. He’s not quite Gregory House, but he seems likely to have the good doctor on his speed dial.

5. The show’s female leads happily defy type. Sophie Devereaux, the con artist played by Bellman, effuses strength without constantly talking tough. (Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick, the stars of two other TNT shows, don’t fare half as well.)  Beth Riesgraf plays the beautiful cat burglar Parker as a socially-inept, frowning kleptomaniac, and is all the more engaging for it.

6. In nearly every episode, Ford’s team pulls off a fake-out you usually can’t predict.

7. Hodge’s character, the hacker Alec Hardison, is a dependable source of comic relief — but he’s not the only source. Every character carries their share of the narrative and the funny.

8. Actual exchange between Ford and Eliot, the assassin played by Christian Kane: “Did you just kill a guy with an appetizer?” “I dunno. Maybe.”

9. Parker wears a credit card scanner in her stocking.

10. The show has unexpected geek cred. “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Brent Spiner, “Battlestar Galactica’s” Mark Sheppard and “Lost’s” Kevin Tighe have all guest-starred. And Jonathan Frakes directed two episodes.

11. “Leverage” has blessedly little to say to the political climate or the
human condition. Its stories aren’t “ripped from today’s headlines.”
It’s fun without being facile, and that’s not an easy balance to
maintain.

12. Honestly, I can’t think of the last time Hutton has played something other than a jilted lover. The Ordinary People’s Front should be pleased.

13. Two of the show’s subplots — the crew’s reaction to Ford’s alcoholism and the almost-but-not-quite romance between Parker and Hardison — are growing naturally. The season-spanning plot lines don’t feel forced.

14. It’s just plain fun to watch a team of thieves and con artists executing a
well-conceived plan, and “Leverage” gives you that opportunity every week.

15. The first season DVD is only $23 on Amazon. You”ll spend that much renting it piecemeal. Just drop the money and revel in how good it feels when a plan comes together.

“My father died before he taught me to care.”

Venture Bros. Season 3

Hey, the new James Bond movie is out on DVD. I strongly suggest that you gather together $20, go to Amazon.com, and buy the third season of The Venture Bros. instead. It’s head and shoulders above “Quantum of Shoelace” and superior to every single thing that’s on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar, what with the “Superjail” and “Delocated” and all the other shows that the Williams Street crowd comes up with while they’re baking.) What other program has dared to pair Scooby Doo with Freud? Hunter S. Thompson with breast augmentation? Oscar Wilde with Fantomas? Only one, and an entire season of its pervasive madness can become your own for just $19.

Host your own “Heroes” hatefest

Heroes
THE CAST OF “HEROES,” LEFT TO RIGHT: Not Britney, Should Have Been Written Out Last Year, Unlikeable Protagonist, Underused Husky Everyman, Married to a Dixie Chick, No Point to Her, Increasingly Offensive Asian Stereotype. PHOTO: NBC

The “second chapter” of the third season of “Heroes” returns to NBC (Seattle channel 5) tonight at 9.p.m., immediately following a special 3-D episode of “Chuck.” If you haven’t been watching “Heroes,” don’t start now; you won’t get why people like it. I watch the show religiously and I don’t get why I like it. It’s not that the show’s mythology is unknowable (it’s been ripped off from “X-Men,” almost whole-cloth), or that its storyline is difficult to follow (half of its plots are meaningless and go nowhere), or that it’s just so good you’ll want to wait for the DVD to watch the series in its entirety. Truth be known, “Heroes” has been a disappointment since the end of its first season, and my friends and I stick with the show for one reason above all: because our distaste for it has mutated into something like love. Yes. We love this terrible, terrible show.

Tonight, we line up in front of the screen to be browbeaten and insulted. And we’ll have the following provisions to help us make the journey:

One laptop, to look up slumming character actors whose faces we cannot match with names.

A couple of wedges of Beecher’s Smoked Flagship Cheese, and a baguette from Essential Bakery.

A six-pack of Maritime Pacific’s Flagship Red. Very necessary. As with most popular forms of entertainment, there are several drinking games associated with “Heroes.” Trust me: You won’t need them. The drinking part of viewing “Heroes” is, ah, involuntary.

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