"The Middleman," the new 13-week series on ABC Family, premieres tonight with a fresh-faced female crime-fighting recruit and a highly comic villain: a genetically modified gorilla who has spent too much time watching mobster movies.
Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: a gleeful mash-up of "Alias" and "Men in Black." The series, culled from a comic book series by "Lost" veteran Javier Grillo-Marxuach, takes the girl-recruit story and turns it tongue-in-cheek. The premise is that the world is filled with threats too bizarre for normal, logical minds to handle. Neutralizing them takes someone superheroically unflappable - and maybe a little divorced from reality herself.
Here, that someone is Wendy Watson, played with entertaining snideness by Natalie Morales. She's a 23-year-old struggling artist who lives in an illegal sublet and takes a series of temp jobs to pay the rent and stave off her mother's pestering phone calls. When one job, at a chemical company, goes bizarrely awry, she handles it with uncanny calm. "Abstract expressionist" is how she explains herself at one point, as if that says it all.
Whatever its origin, the quality catches the attention of The Middleman, a handsome, straight-laced former Navy SEAL played by a deadpan Matt Keeslar. Before long, he has launched into a complicated recruitment scheme so that she can join him in stopping various shades of extra-normal evil.
G-rated fare this isn't: There are jokes about swear words, albeit no actual utterances, plus a running gag about whether Wendy's boyfriend is gay, or just in film school. Yet there's also an air of safety about this show; the weapons are mostly cartoonish, the violence even more so. At one point, a guy gets his head bashed repeatedly into a car, and comes up for air with his face unscratched. True, this might just be the function of a modest makeup budget, but it's somehow a comfort anyway.
"The Middleman" does feel almost lightheartedly low-budget, and as such, it isn't perfect. The premise is clearly derivative (though you'd be hard-pressed to find a superhero story that isn't a knock-off of some other one). The sarcastic dialogue comes on so fast that a few exchanges feel forced. (Character A: "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Character B: "So did the Carter administration.")
Yet, watching this romp, it's hard not to compare it favorably to some of the more self-serious fare on network TV. NBC's higher-budgeted "Heroes" takes a superheroes story as seriously as it does its casting budget, and has often seemed to collapse under its own weight. ABC's "Alias" did the same years ago. (NBC's "Chuck" does a far better job perfecting a comic book tone, though "Chuck" is about realism. Sort of.)
In this case, there's no danger of collapse; "The Middleman" is so light as to feel almost weightless, and compared to much TV, that comes as a relief. If comic books are meant to be escape, there are far worse worlds to camp in for the summer.