The Middleman (Monday, 7 p.m., ABC Family) is the most delightful pop-culture product since Juno. Heroine Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales) is Juno's equal as a deadpan hipster smart aleck. But she has one talent Juno doesn't: a knack for saving the world from machine-gun-toting apes.
The Middleman is set in a satirical sci-fi universe full of comic-book bad guys. Wendy is living a marginal life as an artist/temp when an ugly creature breaks out of a laboratory and grabs her with its tentacles. She calmly stabs it with a letter opener, and her sangfroid captures the attention of the Middleman (Matt Keeslar). He's a wholesome hero type whose job is not only to save the world, but also to prevent the world from learning that supernatural phenomena exist. He convinces Wendy to be his sidekick over the objections of his cranky robot assistant.
Wendy and the Middleman are an instant odd-couple classic. Where she's wised-up and sarcastic, he's a square-jawed square in the Clark Kent mode. He says things like "dog diggity" and "dag-nabit," often while chugging a glass of milk. Creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who adapted the series from his graphic novels, has a ball spoofing spy movies, superhero comics, Planet of the Apes, The Godfather, Andy Warhol, The Avengers and animal-rights groups - and that's just in the first episode.
Is there any way I'm going to miss episode 2? Not a gosh-darn chance in heck.
The Tony Awards
Sunday, 7 pm (CBS)
Skillful dancing, sophisticated singing, hilarious comedy and articulate acceptance speeches. You can kind of understand why ratings have plummeted in recent years....
AFI's 10 Top 10
Tuesday, 7 pm (CBS)
Every summer, the American Film Institute tries to find a new way to list America's greatest movies: by focusing on actors, genres, etc. The problem is, America's greatest movies don't change all that much, so every year we hear about the same ones in a slightly different way.
This time, the AFI gives us the top 10 films in 10 different genres. Think it might just be a big night for Citizen Kane and Casablanca...again?
America's Got Talent
Tuesday, 8 pm (NBC)
NBC has the nerve to make the title a declarative sentence. Anybody who watched the series last summer will mentally place a question mark after the word "Talent."
Tuesday, 8 pm (WHA)
"Young & Restless in China" follows nine young Chinese over the course of four years. With China's economy booming, the documentary offers a glimpse of an ambitious generation that will soon take its place on the world stage. We meet savvy businesspeople who can't make money fast enough, rural folks looking for a new life in the cities, and even a rapper who takes his inspiration from the West.
These people have amazing opportunities, but also weird challenges in a country with age-old barriers. You find yourself wishing them all well - all of them except the rapper, that is. You kind of hope he'll stop making Chinese hip-hop immediately.
The Bill Engvall Show
Thursday, 8 pm (TBS)
I dissed this sitcom last year based on the mediocre premiere. I didn't watch it again till now, and what do you know - I'm smiling.
The Bill Engvall Show is unabashedly old school, with a laugh track, simple sets and a setup-punchline rhythm. The plots look for humor in the minutiae of suburban family life: a cell phone that gets bad reception, children who refuse to clean the garage. A million sitcoms have worked similar territory, but this one succeeds thanks to a great ensemble. Over the past year, something clicked among the actors, all of whom (even the kids) know how to put over the jokes. Engvall is amiable in the Father Knows Worst role, and Nancy Travis complements him beautifully as the Sarcastic Wife.
I'd call Engvall to congratulate him if I could get reception on my damn cell phone.
Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List
Thursday, 8 pm (Bravo)
Kathy Griffin has a distinctive shtick: the foul-mouthed, leather-lunged comedian who makes outrageous cracks about A-list celebrities while reveling in her D-list status. In past seasons, though, I've been unimpressed with her reality series. For one thing, it undercut her self-deprecating persona by being pretentiously self-aggrandizing. For another, it just wasn't funny enough.
But the new season fixes those problems. Griffin eliminates most of the bragging. And she sprays wisecracks like machine-gun fire, with most of them hitting their marks. The debut episode is centered on two of Griffin's TV appearances: hosting CNN's New Year's Eve countdown with Anderson Cooper and presenting at the Producers Guild Awards. She goes gleefully over the top at each event.
Griffin asks Cooper, "What member of the current administration would you most like to waterboard?" When her show loses to the nature documentary Planet Earth at the PGAs, she disses all of nature at the podium: "Oh, let's film a squid in slow motion for five years."
Yes, along with trashing celebrities, Griffin now takes on Earth itself. You can't say she isn't gutsy.