We finally get to see the Middleman and Wendy get physical together... but sadly, the Middleman's not himself, in this exclusive clip from tonight's episode of The Middleman on ABC Family. One of the main reasons we love The Middleman is that it's unabashedly comic-booky, and doesn't seem embarrassed by its roots in the way shows like Heroes do. We got a chance to talk to the show's creator, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, about the show's bizarre universe and what all artists everywhere can learn from Wendy.
How do you make the comic-book tone work, without going too overboard into pastiche?
It's a very difficult thing to do, and what we did is embrace what we are. The Middleman is a show that is unashamed, we don't try to pretend we are anything other than a comedic show based on a comic book. It's the only way we can be what we are. Our characters have no internal censor, they all speak and they all say what's on their minds. It is what it is. Whether people buy the show or not, we're unabashed about what we are. We know very well that the show is made on a basic cable budget, on a basic cable network.
Is your show like the anti-Heroes?
I don't think we're the anti-anything, that kind of sets you off in a negative way. We're a show that's very much aware of everything that came before it, and we're happy to stand on the shoulders of giants, and we refer to a lot of popular culture in our show. But if [The Middleman] is anti-anything, it's anti- the idea that heroism is ultimately tragic, which I think is the dominating trope of most scifi shows that I watch, shows that I like and admire. Doctor Who is an example of a show that doesn't go there that much, a show that doesn't say being heroic will destroy your life. Doing the right thing will not kill you, will not destroy your friends. A lot of popular culture insists on sort of a pornography of despair. I don't think this makes any shows bad or inherently evil and dark, but there is a real darkness in scifi today. I have worked on shows that are very dark shows thematically, and that's really not who I am inside. Every show is a therapist's couch for it creator, so I can't help but bring my optimism [to The Middleman].
So I understand The Middleman isn't canceled, but will have a shorter season?
I posted in my blog about it, in the Middleblog. The ratings haven't been great, and we're still struggling to find our audience. And doing the cost benefit analysis of 13 episodes versus 12, we came up with this plan to do 12 instead of 13. It's a decision I made at the network's urging. ABC Family was the only network that believed in this show and bought the show, and the network president called me after the second episode and said, "Don't change a thing."
Is it weird to be on ABC Family though?
It has a female protagonist who speaks to their core demographic, and [shows] how Wendy is creating a family out of her friends. And Wendy's relationship with the Middleman is the core relationship in her life. Even though it's not a family show [and] I'm not a Republican. [The show] has a very postmodern bent. [But] it's a show that's very much about family, in terms of what Wendy's life with her friends is like.
This is a world where weird shit is always happening and nobody notices. Is there sort of a subtext of people being blind conformists who don't see what's going on around them? Are people sheep?
I guess I kind of wrestle with that. I don't believe people are sheep, obviously. I don't have the same kind of mentality that things have to be kept from people. I do think that people have a tendency to focus on the thing that's in front of them. It's not that Wendy has a broader perspective — this is Wendy's job. It's not that people are sheep, It's that the they accept the reality that's presented to them. It's not their job [to worry about alien monsters]. The Middle-universe has a casual workaday quality to it.. The textures of the show are very worn and layered and they're not high tech and slick.
And yet, all of the gadgets are awesome.
Everything is very old-timely, and everything is made of bakelite and steel, and has gauges and toggle switches. I call it "NASA punk." I told the designers, it should have stuff that would look like what NASA would have had in the 1950s. The [secret organization] O2STK buys stuff every 50 years. It's built to last.
The show feels like it's absurdist but not dark. Where's that coming from?
I think it's that life is absurd, and your friendships are what's important, your relationships with other people are what's important.
I love the fact Wendy and her friends are artists, and that's a big part of thee show. Where did that come from?
I did theater from when I was very young, and I've always hung out [with artistic people]. The people in the show are like the people I grew up with, we have very similar relationships. The idea of art school for Wendy also seemed so natural, because it's the opposite of being a spy and... even though I'm a television writer and people tend to believe that's not being an artist, the climate of a writers' room is like a group of artists being stuck in a room coming up with stuff. Everybody is in the same room all the time, and you know each other super well. The relationships in the writers room are like family.
Is it like a pop art thing, Wendy's art commenting on the monster of the week?
Wendy's paintings are actually inspired by Franz Marc and the Blue Rider Group. A painting called The Fate Of The Animals. Obviously, her style has evolved from there, because we've had other artists do her stuff. It actually evolved out of a Blue Rider post-cubist sensibility. Wendy's group is like an artists' collective from the 30s.
Another comic-booky thing about The Middleman is that it takes place in a world where magic and science coexist. There's even a gadget that detects magic. So magic turns out to be scientifically measurable, sort of.
It's interesting, because it turns out that [Wendy's roommate] Lacey is sort of the hard-bitten rationalist in the show. She namechecks the Carl Sagan book, The Demon-Haunted World, in one episode. And someone gives her a look, and she's like, "What? I'm a vegan, not an idiot." What I'm not is either a religious fundamentalist nor a hard-bitten atheist, I believe in tolerance, and that doesn't mean accepting everything at face value... What I imagine is that there's a rational explanation for everything, we just don't know it yet.