'Middleman': The post-corporate in-person table-read reunion

'Middleman' reunion

The cast and writers of the "The Middleman" reunite for a reading of "The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation," eventually to become a graphic novel. "Middleman" creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach is standing at right. (Robert Lloyd / Los Angeles Times / May 25, 2014)

Saturday in Los Angeles, "The Middleman" lived again. For the space of an hour and change, the late 2008 ABC Family television series about a pair of non-superhuman heroes protecting the world from a smorgasbord of aliens, monsters, mythological creatures and evil geniuses occupied real space in real time, as its cast and writers gathered for a table-reading of the script to a new graphic-novel adventure, "The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation."

"Spoilers are OK," "Middleman" creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach (author recently of a much-discussed essay, "Finding the Next Lost: What Is an 'Operational Theme' and Why Don’t I Have One?") told the crowd at the Downtown Independent theater. "Tweet it, Facebook it.... I would think don't tape the whole thing for YouTube, but fragments are good ... bits that tantalize people and make them want to buy the book."

It was the first expression of "The Crowd-Funded Franchise Resurrection," a successful Indiegogo campaign whose ultimate goal is not merely the creation of the aforementioned comic, but to bring earlier "Middleman" comics back into print. (Pledges nearly doubled the stated $37,000 goal; one perk was a ticket to the reading, which was videotaped for those who couldn't attend.) Given that the comic, written by Grillo-Marxuach and illustrated by Les McClaine, began as the script for a TV pilot, it is natural and fitting that the series -- canceled after one excellent but unappreciated season -- would return as a comic. (Comics, of course, are the movies, or television series, of the print world, just as movies and TV shows are the comics of the … movie and TV world.)

Described by Grillo-Marxuach as "comic-book Volume 5, TV show episode 14," "The Crowd-Funded Franchise Resurrection" follows the no-longer series-concluding episode 13, "The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse," also produced as a graphic novel and also given a cast-reunion table read, in 2009 at San Diego's Comi-Con. Where that comic, drawn by Armando M. Zanker, existed wholly in the world established by the TV show, the new script is rooted in the story's double existence on page and screen -- the "economical, creator-owned sequential reality" and the "canonical but corporate-owned reality," as expressed here -- and the differences between them.

Most obvious of these is the fact that where, in the original comic, heroine Wendy Watson was a Caucasian redhead, in the series she was a dark-haired Latina, played by Natalie Morales. Or as TV Wendy says in "The Crowd-Funded Franchise Resurrection" when she meets her double (read by Amber Benson, Tara on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), "Bizarro White-Chick Me in a belly shirt and unconscionably tight pants? Mirror universe? Again?"

The series, which is still available on DVD (though not, as far as I could discover, to stream), was a sunny thing with dark corners, a sci-fi parody that itself worked as actual science-fiction. Its cancellation is still mentioned, often alongside that of "Bunheads," to signify what it is that ABC Family doesn't do right. (They do other things right; don't write in.) I am not particularly clingy when it comes to TV shows -- I appreciate and even endorse some #save_____ campaigns, but I never get too worked up even over the end of series I love. (Indeed, I expect the series I love to be canceled, more often than not.) And reunions are always a dicey thing.

But I am here to tell you that I got a little emotional hearing those voices jump back into their old skins, to speak again Grillo-Marxuach's fanciful, pulp-formal dialogue -- metaphors such as "two pronged fork of justice" and "Venn diagram of annihilation" and lines like, "Don't paw at me with wanton existential sexual innuendo, missy" and "I’ll be godfather to a gopher's girlfriend if the whole enchilada goes cattywampus because of one man's dream of greater household convenience"(not to give too much of the plot away).

Joining Morales onstage were Matt Keeslar (speaker of most of the lines above, who has since given up acting for nursing) as the eponymous hero, an upright hunk of apple pie in an Eisenhower jacket; Mary-Pat Gleason, as their caustic robot assistant; Brit Morgan, as Wendy's "confrontational spoken word performance artist" roommate Lacey (Wendy herself paints); and Jake Smollett as their gnomic, guitar-toting neighbor, Noser. Alan Smyth reprised his role as Clotharian leader High (later Maximum, now Extreme) Aldwin, named for a character from "Willow"; Morgan Peter Brown played comic-book Wendy's long-lost father; and "Middleman" writers Sarah Watson, Andy Reasar, Jordan Rosenberg and Margaret Dunlap took various other parts. (Two campaign contributors got to play Homeland Security agents.) The warmth of their reunion was underscored by a story that was itself about reunions.

As a TV show that pushed its comic-book background into the foreground, "The Middleman" was most postmodern and metafictional; the script for the comic book, meanwhile, includes screen directions and conventions (smash cut, chyron, fade to black). It is as allusive as "The Wasteland" (and as needful of footnotes).

"The Crowd-Funded Franchise Resurrection" dropped references to "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and "I Love Lucy" ("What's that got to do with the price of Vitameatavegamin?"), the Adam West "Batman" (the best live-action "Batman," and a series that "The Middleman" in many ways resembles), Holland Taylor, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Lao-Tse, illustrator Storm Thorgeson, cold-fusion researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, retcon and fanwank, Rachel Carson, "Mommy Dearest," the Disney film "The Black Hole," comics artists Alex Raymond and Jack Kirby, and the movie "Cloud Atlas," as in: "This is the single most confusing day of my life, and I saw 'Cloud Atlas.' In a theater." That is not a complete list.

As with the recent "Veronica Mars" movie, we again see what a little crowd-funding can do. It might not get you another season of your favorite television show, though that will probably happen sometime, but it might bring it back every once in a while, like Brigadoon, to brighten your life. The imprimatur of a major network or label is no longer as meaningful as it was, nor self-publishing an admission of failure. Whatever gets it done. If not as a TV show, then why not as a comic book? Or here's a thought: a radio show. (It works as one, the reading showed.) Come on! Who's ready for radio?

The screening was followed by an autograph session, for which Grillo-Marxauch had put down a few rules. "Please don't propose marriage to the actors," he said. "Some of them are already married, some of them are out to get married, some of them will be married -- perhaps to you. But today is not the today to make that happen." It was a happy day, nevertheless.

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