One of our favorite parts of superhero-adventure The Middleman is the on-again, off-again romance between the mysterious hero and Lacey, his sidekick's roommate. But Javier Grillo-Marxuach tells io9 he fought that storyline tooth and nail. So what happened? Spoilers ahead.
For those of you coming to this late, The Middleman was a graphic novel that spawned a television show on ABC Family last year. It followed the adventures of art student Wendy Watson, who takes a temp job that turns out to be an apprenticeship with the Middleman, a mysterious superhero who fights monsters and mad scientists. And the Middleman strikes up an awkward but really sweet flirtation with Wendy's roommate Lacey.
The Forbidden Romance Contingency: Show creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach says he balked at having any kind of romance between MM and Lacey. "I was only willing to make it a joke in the pilot," but insisted that would be the end of it. The pilot, incidentally, was 90 percent the same as the first issue of his graphic novel, laying out the characters as broad archetypes: the stoic, quirky hero, the snarky art student and her idealistic roommate.
But this is what happens when you develop a TV show, Grillo-Marxuach says. You bring that story that you created sitting in a room by yourself into a room full of other writers, and they start putting in their own ideas and influences. And you bring in actors like Natalie Morales (Wendy Watson), Matt Keeslar (The Middleman) and Brit Morgan (Lacey Thornfield) and they have bring their own stuff to the characters. One of the things that really jumps out at you, if you read the graphic novel (which you should) and then watch the TV series (which you most definitely should) is how much more complex and nuanced the characters become. Grillo-Marxuach says that's a result of working on the characters in a collaborative setting.
And Grillo-Marxuach says he has "boundaries" in his own writing ability, stuff he can't or doesn't do. So when the other writers on the show started pushing for Lacey and MM to go on a date, Grillo-Marxuach pushed back. "But the writers in the writer's room kept insisiting... It's weird to be a showrunner at loggerheads with the writing room." He objected for several reasons: "He's older than she is, he's Wendy's boss and an authority figure." But in the end, he gave in, and that led to some of the more poignant moments in the show, and deepened the characters immensely. "If it was just me writing this in my room by miself doing every episode you'd never have seen that," says Grillo-Marxuach. "I'm not a megalmanical show runner, and I like it when people make my work better."
The Superhero Comedy Initiative: We just sat down and watched most of the show's run once again on DVD — the DVD box set comes out July 28, incidentally — and it's striking how much the show feels like a straight-up comedy when you watch a bunch of episodes in a row. Grillo-Marxuach is happy for people to view The Middleman as a comedy. "It was always a comedy, in that it always riffs on popular culture, and it always had this very specific pattery way of talking."
"If you want to send a message to the world — and I don't know that the show was a big message show — it's better to do it by making people laugh than by being preachy," Grillo-Marxuach says. The Middleman "was always a very sweet-souled show, and it had a lot of heart. It has a lot of pity towards villains. It says that evil is little people doing a lot of work not to be good, even though being good is probably easier."
And as we talked about last summer at Comic Con, a big part of the show's lightness is in response to the fetishization of darkness in genre entertainment of the past 20 years, shows and movies which insist that life is hard and full of struggle, and heroism will destroy your life. In response, "an affirmation of the possibility of joy and accomplishment is very much what the show is all about. Of course, my show got canceled after 12 episodes, and The Dark Knight made $600 billion," notes Grillo-Marxuach.
The Unlikely Terry Nation In-Joke Alert:
The fact that The Middleman is such an upbeat show makes it even funnier that — SPOILER ALERT — the unfilmed final episode is full of tiny references to Blake's 7, the famously depressing British science fiction series. I would list them, but we'd be here all day. "I was trying to find the show that has the most depressing series finale ever" to reference in The Middleman's finale, says Grillo-Marxuach. That unfilmed final episode, of course, is coming out as a graphic novel in time for Comic Con, and there'll be a reading of the episode's script, featuring the original cast, on Thursday at Comic Con. And for those who missed it, here's the official description:
Who is The Middleman's long-lost love? Can Lacey Thornfield ever forget her requited but never-acted-upon attraction to The Middleman? Is Manservant Neville a beneficent plutocrat or an evil madman with a nefarious plan for world domination? Will Wendy Watson and Tyler Ford ever find time for one another? Will Wendy Watson ever wear a slave girl costume? All your burning questions will be answered - and all your burning answers will be questioned - in this season-ending, series-concluding installment of The Middleman.
And at the right is a sneak peek at the graphic novel's final image of MM, from original artist Les McClain.
Anyway, all of those Blake's 7 references are there to set up a downer ending, but the graphic novel's actual ending is not that bleak, says Grillo-Marxuach. In fact, the graphic novel version of the series finale has a more upbeat ending than the actual episode would have had if it had been filmed as planned. By the time the show's creators were working on the 13th episode, they were exhausted from doing the first 12 and struggling with "big budget obstacles," and their beloved colleague Neil Levin had just died. (The show's 12th and final episode is dedicated to Levin.) But since Grillo-Marxuach had some time to rework the script slightly between the show's cancellation and the graphic novel coming out, "I found a way to end it on a more optimistic note... Had we shot it, it would have had more weariness."
So as Grillo-Marxuach puts it, "In our world, Blake is not evil, and the Federation is destroyed." (This led to us having a huge debate over whether Blake is evil in the Blake's 7 series finale.)
The "Never Say Never Again" Potential: So if the DVD box set sells a billion copies, could The Middleman still return in some form? Absolutely, says Grillo-Marxuach. "The nice thing is, this happened with Firefly, it happened with Futurama, it happened with Family Guy. There's a history of cult shows being found and further exploited by the corporations, in a good way."
So this seems like a great moment to plug the DVDs, which are coming out July 28 on Shout Factory. We'll post a review of the box set later, but they're already available for preorder at Amazon.com. And it's never too early to do your Christmas shopping. You never know when your local shopping mall will be overrun with gun-toting gorillas, after all.