Dancing Monkey One: Watch The Middleman, you bastards.

A steady trickle of blog topics rolling in response to my offer to be a Dancing Monkey this week (though most come, as most of my comments do, through the livejournal feed). Pushes my thoughts in interesting directions, it does, with enough random writerly nonsense included to keep me going for a while. Logically they should happen in order, but I’m going to start with something relatively easy (because it’ll feed into a couple of other topics folks have suggested). To whit, Adam demanded “a public rave about the awesomeness of The Middleman.”

This I can do, with bells on and a cherry on top. I can’t, apparently, do it without swearing and unleashing hate upon the world. Consider yourselves warned.

My rave starts thusly: Go and watch The Middleman in whatever form that’s available, you fuckers, because the fact that they’ve only made one season of this show makes me cry.

You should know before I go any further that I’m not a fan of most forms of Geek TV: I loathe Star Trek with a fiery passion; I see Stargate as the malignant legacy of an already stale genre tradition; I walked away from the new version of Battlestar Galactica three episodes in because I could see the clusterfuck of stupidity that was coming and it bored me unbelievably. And that last one still hurts, because I really liked the original mini-series they did to launch the revamped franchise. In fact, I was downright excited and my basic rule of thumb is that I. Don’t. Get. Excited. About. Geek. TV.

And as with most people who are unfeasibly angry at particular genres it’s because I actually love it and am therefore primed for great acts of dissapointment. Thus The Middleman makes me happy in a way that very few TV shows ever have.

Mostly, it does this by refusing to treat me like an idiot.

I realise that I’ve just insulted many of the folks who read this journal and follow the shows I bestow hate upon above, but that’s the truth of it – I turned off most of them because they do something unfailingly stupid and ask me to go along for the ride. And I’ll do that, if I have to, as my consistent viewing of the new Doctor Who series demonstrates, but you need to build up a cache of credit with some awesome up front. Stargate figured it’d earn that cache by giving me misogyny and stock characters in its opening episodes, along with dialogue so bad I actually had to leave the room in order to stop laughing. BSG gave me terminally dull episodes and overwrought melodrama with a philosophical underpinning that struck me as out-of-date. Trek? Well, Trek‘s a mixed bag, but lets just say I don’t think things such as Red Shirts help its case.

Every time I sit down to watch one of these shows I remember an interview J. Michael Strazinski did talking about the early days of Babylon 5, where he noted that Science Fiction television shows aren’t made for science fiction fans because TV executives assume that no matter how bad the program is the fans will show up and watch it because it has lasers and space ships. To a large extent I think the assembled hordes of TV fans prove them right – and while I have no real problem with people watching those shows if they’re getting something out of them, it does leave me with a large and profound feeling of hostility and alienation when it comes to TV-based SF (and, admittedly, it’s my problem; I don’t hold it against you if you love these shows, but I’m never going to be able to step up and enjoy them the same way you do). I can’t geek out over them or get drawn in unless they’re doing something I find new and interesting – B5 managed it with the stunning revelation of episode-to-episode continuity (despite its other flaws); Who manages it through some clever casting and the continued presence of Steven Moffat among the writing staff; The Middleman manages it by…

…well, lets put it this way: In its first episode The Middleman gave me snappy dialogue, a hyper-intelligent ape with a machine-gun, and more post-modern geek references than an entire season of Futurama. It had some clunky spots, sure, but the overall impression was that the people who were writing and producing the show knew the history of geek TV (and comics, and fiction, and computer games) and were happy to be a part of it. They were having fun in a very real sense, and it carried over into the program. More importantly, they weren’t labouring over the idea that this is what they were doing – they sat there and said “you know the genre as well as we do, and you know why this is funny, so lets not bother trying to explain it.” In short, it didn’t treat the fact that I was part of the Geek Tribe as an afterthought and actively tried to engage me as part of that tribe. It revelled in its geekyness, rather than trying to shrug it off and become something it wasn’t. More importantly, The Middleman remembered that part of the fun us giving you the space to “get it” on your own – it wasn’t constantly pointing at things to remind you of how smart it was.

There are other reasons to love the Middleman: the leads are engaging, the supporting cast is verging on excellent (and, dear god, how can there not be more Mouser in the world?), the entire thing is goofy and fun. The problems with the show are largely the stuff I find in most TV – dodgy computer-generated special effects and occasionally clunky acting. But it also has an episode in which the assembled horde of lucha-libre rudo’s take on a single masked martial arts master; it makes Bugbear references while naming its cars; and it teases you with zombie references for episodes at a time before the zombies make an appearance.

The other point of genius in its favour: The Middleman is funny. Very funny. And unlike most geek-oriented humour, it was funny without picking on itself. The Middleman isn’t ashamed of being geeky and, more importantly, it isn’t trying to pass that shame of being a geek onto me as the viewer in the name of being funny. Given that I come from the gamer-oriented parts of geek culture that have lorded stuff like Fear of Girls** as the stuff of great humor, and that I’ve sat through conversations where people have espoused their love for shows like Big Bang Theory***, I tend to value those forms of media that aren’t primarily interested in saying “geeks, aren’t they weird.” It even gets bonus points for having characters who are blatent, obvious geeks without coming from an IT or science background (the science/tech-only vibe given to geek characters on television tends to be one of my pet-peeves).

So yes, The Middleman is glorious and weird and one of those TV shows I will miss horribly. I’m not alone in that. And while it’s probably too late to do anything about its cancelation, you should go order it from I-Tunes and pre-order the DVD sets and ensure that there’s enough desire for it out there to make people think “hey, in retrospect, this did okay – maybe we should do something like it.”

*yes, I know, and now it’s cancelled, thereby proving this might not have been the smartest choice. Shut up, okay? Shut up, shut up, shut up.
** and a quick note for my gamer friend – stop sending me links to Fear of Girls or trying to convince me it’s funny. Just like most forms of Geek Humour that rely on poking fun at our tribe’s social disfunction, I tend to find it mildly abhorent at best. You have a greater chance of convincing me to watch Original Trek.
***which I’ve watched, yes, and enjoyed it during the episodes where they aren’t being relentlessly negative, but I still hate myself for being drawn in by the show.

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