tv review

Alex, Inc. Is a Show About Podcasting That’s Not Worth the Download

Zach Braff in Alex, Inc. Photo: Tony Rivetti/ABC

Alex, Inc. is a comedy about a man recording a podcast about the fact that he’s starting a podcast company. It is based, loosely, on an actual podcast. That’s a multilayered level of navel gazing that generally leads to someone losing an eye in a tragic belly-button-observing accident.

Don’t worry, though, no one goes blind in this ABC comedy, although the show certainly has plenty of blind spots. In his first major TV role since Scrubs, Zach Braff stars as Alex, the man with a dream in his heart and an audio kit in his man purse who’s jumping with both feet into the same media space occupied by Serial and How Did This Get Made. But don’t expect this series — inspired by the podcast StartUp, which was recorded by Alex Blumberg as he was starting Gimlet Media — to incisively dissect podcast culture in the same way that Silicon Valley seizes on the absurdities of the tech world. More than anything, this overly cute sitcom, created by Matt Tarses, former writer for Scrubs and The Goldbergs, is about the risks that come with taking a mid-career leap and how that leap affects Alex’s wife and children. Based on the first three episodes, the first of which airs tonight, Alex, Inc. seems more like a family sitcom that occasionally dresses like a workplace comedy.

Within the first few minutes of the pilot, Alex Schuman explains that he’s been working as a producer for a deliberately positive public-radio show called Cheer Up! for many years but has grown tired of the job. (He describes Cheer Up! as “NPR on Prozac.”) Alex wants to tell stories that matter, dammit! So after his idea for a piece about a suspected murderer is, not surprisingly, rejected, he spontaneously quits and decides to start his own podcast network, even though he has no investors, no business plan, and no idea how he and his wife will make their finances and schedules work now that he’s turned their day-to-day upside down.

Tiya Sircar plays that wife, Rooni, with the same sensible patience that every spouse supporting a man’s dream has exhibited on TV since the beginning of time. She’s fine in the role, though it’s a bit of a bummer to see her doing the fairly standard sitcom-wife routine after her wonderfully unpredictable work on The Good Place. On the other hand, I’m glad to see that Tarses & Co. paired Alex with an Indian-American spouse, matching the marital dynamic in Blumberg’s real-life partnership. Their two kids are, according to an ABC press release, confident and quirky and, yeah, sure, that sounds about right. Ben (Elisha Henig), the older one, is obsessed with magic, and Soraya (Audyssie James) is the resident smart-aleck dropper of sarcastic comments. (Every TV household has to have at least one.)

And then there’s Braff, who has never bothered me nearly as much as he seems to bug at least half of the internet. I don’t even retroactively hate Garden State. Here he’s basically doing a slightly refined version of J.D., the physician he played on Scrubs. He’s goofy, awkward, and nervous, but usually figures out how to bumble his way toward tiny triumphs. His performance is a bit cartoonish at times, but this sort of role — the good-hearted nerdy striver — is one that suits him. Unfortunately, it’s just not particularly well-written and includes way too many bad dad jokes.

For example: After emerging from a shower in only a towel and realizing his Indian mother-in-law is visiting, he apologizes to her for not being more dressed. “Or as you might say,” he quips, “sorry for forgetting my sari.” No, J.D. 2.0. Just no.

Almost nothing about Alex’s work environment makes a lot of sense. He rents his own corner in an industrial co-working space with seemingly echoey acoustics, an open floor plan, and no studios. How he’s going to record and edit podcasts in this environment is beyond me. He also has just two people on his staff: Deirdre (Hillary Anne Matthews), a young producer from Cheer Up! who follows Alex to his new gig because she’s blatantly in love with him, a running gag on the show that never begins to be funny; and Eddie (Michael Imperioli), Alex’s cousin who’s supposedly a slick salesman but seems more like a con artist than a business whiz. Deirdre and Eddie immediately don’t get along, which is another constant issue on the series. “She wouldn’t know a good business deal if it took her to dinner, which it wouldn’t, because she gets an F in boobs,” Eddie says directly in front of Deirdre. That’s supposed to be hilarious, I guess? Actually, it’s grounds for an HR complaint, but, of course, Alex’s fledgling company doesn’t have an HR department yet.

In every episode, Alex tackles an obstacle — lack of funding, an inability to come up with a good name for his company, the struggle to make time for his kids — and invariably finds a way to boost himself up and keep going. It’s funny: This guy left a great job to get away from cloying sunniness and dig into serious, life-changing stories. That has resulted in a sitcom that is filled with almost nothing but cloying sunniness.

Alex, Inc., a Show About Podcasting, Isn’t Worth a Download