CCI: "The Middleman" Panel

CCI, THURSDAY: THE MIDDLEMANby Mark Cronan, Staff Writer Exploding meat trucks, dirty hippies, the World's Most Expensive Banana Peel, and Evil Sorority Middleman greet a packed audience of fans...

With half their team stuck in traffic on the I5 freeway waiting for an exploded meat truck to be hauled away (which sounds like a Middleman episode waiting to happen), the Middleman panel packed capacity crowd was greeted by a determined yet cheery skeleton crew at the Comic-Con International in San Diego.

John "the suit" Rood, Senior Vice President of Marketing for ABC Family, skillfully took on the hosting duties for the event, introducing creator and executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and The Middleman himself Matt Keeslar.

Natalie Morales, who plays the role of Wendy Watson on the show, was among the missing talent. However, she made a special video appearance apologizing for her absence. The short piece included two clips from upcoming episodes of "The Middleman," giving the audience a taste for this eclectic pop-culture laden series about a super-secret organization fighting the hidden forces of super-villainy in our society, tongue firmly planted in cheek the whole time.

The first scene, which apparently is a scene from the July 28, 2008 episode, revealed the developing potential relationship between The Middleman and Wendy's roommate Lacey Thornfield, all while discussing the best way to free Wendy and The Middleman from the plight of being handcuffed to a building by the week's newest super-villain.

The second, a scene from the August 4, 2008 episode, features a surprise guest appearance from Kevin Sorbo! Sorobo plays a questionable character who apparently thinks of himself as a McCarthy-esk hero. This over zealous "do-gooder" is seen uttering the threat "Listen up you damn dirty hippie, this is your last chance" to a hapless prisoner, who fearfully replies to Sorbo's weapon "What the hell is that?" and receives the grim response "The thing that is going to bash in your dirty commie head!"

The floor was immediately opened to questions after the clips by Rood.

Javier fielded the first question, concerning the reason for the 10PM Monday time slot on ABC Family, a somewhat unusual time and weekday for the network. Javier explained that "ABC Family gave them seventeen million to do it, and let them use profanity, though with bleeps and black bars." So they are not going to ask why it's on at that time and day. Javier said he "Thinks it's better to stay on at that time and try and establish the audience, and let the audience find them."

Javier then took a moment to hold up a fresh copy of his Middleman comic, saying that "There is a lot of stuff in the third book that is finding it's way into the series, like "Fat Boy", for example" one of the organizations in his comic. "Fat Boy" references include "Fat Boy Coffee", a gas station named "Fat Boy Petroleum", and the fact that "Fat Boy" manufactures the truth bomb, Viewmaster" and other items seen in the show's background.

During this whole pitch for the comic, Rood took the opportunity to toss plenty of baseball caps, shirts, and other give-aways to audience members at random, keeping the crowd lively.

On the topic of disposable items, the next question was regarding the prop for a banana peel, a clue seen in the first episode of the show. Javier chuckled and explained that it was the "World's most expensive banana peel", and it "cost like twelve-hundred bucks" for the prop department to create.

The light-hearted topics continued as an audience member started her question with "I wasn't initially going to watch this show..." to which Javier quickly quipped "Nor were we!" to plenty of laughter. Finally, the question came out concerning the potential for The Middleman to have an alter ego, evoking the response "He's too mysterious to have something out there in the real world, so we figure he sleeps at HQ and Ida...takes care of him."

Not to be left out of the questions, Keeslar was asked about his square jaw classic superhero look, and how he got the role. Keeslar said "My agent sent me the script and I answered I absolutely wanted this part because it was so brilliantly written....great dialog. Next day I had breakfast with Javier and he said "You're going to have to go through the full audition process with ABC Family...and eventually you'll be flown to Vancouver to shoot the pilot, so do you have any problem moving to Vancouver?"."

Javier explained that Keeslar was perfect for the role from the get-go, and how, in preparation for that initial breakfast, he accidentally dressed in a bizarre suit that just happened to look a little too much like the Middleman suit, and had to change when his wife insisted that he not scare Keeslar off.

Speaking of suits, the next question was directed at Rood, and started with the line "I guess this is for The Suit", too laughter from the audience and raised eyebrows and a chuckle from Javier. The questioner said he downloaded episodes of the show rather than watching it live, and wondered if the network theoretically received a lot more views by internet download rather than direct viewing, would the network want to cancel the show due to lack of ratings.

Rood, who appeared to take "The Suit" title in good spirit, said that the network has "record traffic on ABC.com. We're going to take all that into account, and so far so good and everyone is watching the show...We make more money on network views, but it's all 'good' views." Later Rood added "This is the most critically acclaimed show on ABC Family, and we take all that into account."

As for how many episodes were already confirmed, Keeslar said "We have six original episodes left to air already shot" in addition to the six episodes that already aired. Javier added "Those of you who read the blog know that the ratings are not spectacular, but they are there and that's good. We really appreciate the level of fandom that has grown around the show, looking for all the references, rewinding to catch them...go out and go pimp my show!"

And on that topic of fandom and pop culture references that frequent the show, Javier was asked if there would be more episodes with all-geek references. Javier said "Oh yeah, like the zombie episode. Every episode is deeply embedded with something geek, so you're going to have to go back and find those references."

Asked about the potential for a strong secondary audience on a future DVD release, Javier joked "Well we'd like to find a primary audience on ABC Family first!" He continued to explain "We've actually video taped every read-through process on the show for a DVD extra. Keesler agreed and said the cast had a lot of fun doing those readings, and "doing the voices of the other characters and such...it's a pretty great process. It's a place you can experiment with what you think the scene will look like and to try things out."

Javier further described other tidbits of a potential DVD release, such as "The Javicast, textual sets, and stuff. We were always and are definitely looking forward to making a great DVD package."

Would Javier drop any references to other somewhat darker shows he's worked on, such as "Lost" and "Medium?" "Make no mistake: we will parasite off of any show, but it's too soon for 'Lost,' it's still going on as a show...but as far as the darker tone, I think that every show is sort of a therapist couch for it's creator. I think that 'Lost' sort of speaks to how the writer sees the show, I think it's sort of the same thing for 'Medium.' 'Middleman' is sort of pure unadulterated me, and maybe it's because I am shallow but I just am not that...cynical. So really, this show is about hope and optimism and about how you can be a hero and it's really what the show is about, it's heroic without being tragic."

Turning from heroism to villainy, the panel was asked which was Keesler's favorite villain to face, and best villain for Javier to write.

Keesler answered "In one upcoming episode the Middleman becomes possessed by a...sorority nerd. It was a fun character to play, and to face a sort of an evil sorority Middleman."

Javier hinted at the final episode of the season, stating "Even though I am the showrunner on the 'Middleman' we have a host of talented writers, we read our last slated episode yesterday and it's sort of the 'Middleman' mirror episode," referring to the infamous "Star Trek" mirror universe episodes. "Everyone has pointy beards and such, and I think that is my favorite bad guy so far, the evil Middleman."

Keesler returned to the topic, adding that he thought Keven Sorbo was also a good bad guy to face.

Questioned on his ability to speak Hebrew, as portrayed in one already-aired episode, Keesler made a passable fairly-gibberish recitation of his Hebrew line from the show, to applause.

On the issue of researching such languages, Javier explained that Margaret Dunlap is the writer's assistant on the show, and in one episode Margaret's friend translated a ceremonial sort of Latin sentence. Margaret, it was explained, had "like a 1560 SAT score, or whatever the highest score is when she took it...and whenever she says something, we know she is correct because she's so smart, and actually at one point, there was a sign with her SAT score as a response to anyone who disagreed when she said she knew something."

Asked how Javier decided to start putting in pop culture references in the show and whether that caused any licensing issues, Javier said "No, no issues with licensing because Disney has this huge legal department, and what winds up happening is...Noser [the character] ends up doing those things off-camera."

Keesler piped in saying "The pop-culture references ARE the show", but Javier disagreed "Well I think it started that way, but with the Middleman and Wendy, we really look at the show as being a character piece. It's a show where nobody has an internal censor...and strangely they all relate to each other. In a way, the evil is almost incidental. I don't think evil is a metaphor for your inner demons, but I think evil is a thing in the world that is something to be fought...and evil becomes incidental in the world."

Asked by someone with a British accent if there would be any international openings for the show, Rood said "There's been some talk, but let's start with the U.S. Tell your U.S. friends," and also "All the international markets like to take a wait and see to see ratings in the U.S. first."

Javier added "You know a lot of this show owes itself to earlier Doctor Who...so I really hope for a UK release."

With some final jokes about Keesler looking and acting like Adam West, and plenty of additional give-aways thrown into the audience and to questioners, Les McClain walked up to his seat at the panel just in time for everything to end with plenty of applause.

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