A sitcom about a guy who podcasts seems like a randomly generated punchline to a joke about media in 2018 — perhaps like one of the white cards in the game Cards Against Humanity, a phrase just waiting to fit the blank space of a setup. In this case, the white card is “Alex, Inc.,” and the setup is something snarky about increasingly Balkanized media demographics. No one laughs.
“Alex, Inc.” is an adaptation of Alex Blumberg’s popular 2014 podcast “StartUp,” a real-time chronicle of how he worked to get a media company off the ground. Blumberg brought listeners into every detail of the process — pitching a billionaire, negotiating an equity split with his business partner, and sharing his anxieties with his wife. The podcast is now poised to launch Season 7, and Blumberg’s company Gimlet Media is now not just valued at $70 million but also the home of several beloved podcasts.
So naturally, someone thought to make a show about it.
“Alex, Inc.” stars Zach Braff (who also produces and directs) as a version of Blumberg, with the same idea but very different execution. Blumberg, a cofounder of NPR’s “Planet Money,” was conversant in the language of business. But Braff’s Alex is presented more as a feel-good storyteller following a whim; his wife, Rooni (Tiya Sircar, criminally underused), affectionately reminds him that he is bad at everything except storytelling. Despite the risks that Alex takes in the pilot — first quitting his job, and then dipping into their retirement fund — “Alex, Inc.” maintains an upbeat optimism that minimizes any of the attendant gravity of his choices. Perhaps this would be understandable in another show, but in “Alex, Inc.,” this gloss is even more glaringly superficial; it’s the exact opposite of the sort of emotional depth found in podcasting, and quite the opposite of the intimacy of “StartUp.”
This push away from nuance feeds into the comedy of the sitcom, which is almost all surprisingly lightweight. It’s either kid-centric or slapstick comedy, which are both easy wins, albeit in very different ways. Braff, whose character on “Scrubs” was similarly prone to a pratfall, leans into the whimsy of TV Alex with an alacrity that seems at odds with a middle-aged man who has just moved part of his life savings into creating a network for nuanced and deeply considered radio segments.
Which is a pity, because when not triggering anaphylactic shock or lying to advertisers in order to cover up a scheduling snafu, Braff’s Alex is a heartfelt character. In the pilot — unexpectedly, the strongest episode — Alex’s daughter Soraya (Audyssie James) teases her father about his latest story: “Is it going to be on the radio? TV’s better. I need pictures.” Alex responds by building the story for them right there at the kitchen table, with different voices and sound effects. The desperation of the venture is more palpable in the first episode, which makes for a story with real dramatic stakes. It even makes sense that Michael Imperioli, of “The Sopranos” fame, is in the sitcom; he plays Alex’s shifty cousin Eddie, who comes on board to help run the business. Imperioli is a much more gifted comic actor than you might expect, but his character only works when the story is steeped in desperation. In the glow of inexplicable affluence that characterizes the second and third episodes, he’s out of place — and seems to know it.
Outside the startup itself, “Alex, Inc.” significantly improves. Sircar and Braff have minimal chemistry, but the story elements about Rooni’s attempt to make sense of Alex’s decisions and help him on this journey work well enough. Both kids are scene-stealingly cute, in different ways, and in the third episode released to critics, the complications of a multi-ethnic family emerge when Rooni’s mother, Joya (Anjali Bhimani), comes to inspect her son-in-law’s new business scheme. Rooni’s exasperation with both her husband and her mother is spot-on, as are Alex’s failed attempts to find a Holi celebration that hasn’t been co-opted by white partygoers. The gentle sensitivity and celebration of that storyline would serve other quadrants of the show well. There is richness to “Alex, Inc.” It’s just everywhere except the main story.