'Alex, Inc.': TV Review

Listen to a podcast instead.
3/28/2018

Zach Braff returns to primetime in ABC's fruitless and frustrating new podcasting sitcom.

Alex, Inc. may technically be a TV translation of the popular StartUp podcast, but it feels more accurate to say that the Zach Braff vehicle is Shark Tank reimagined as a family sitcom. The two ABC series fetishize entrepreneurship as a dream-chasing, mettle-proving, feel-good endeavor, as nobly all-American as the Marlboro Man. Appearing as himself in the Alex, Inc. series premiere, occasional Shark Tank investor and real-life venture capitalist Chris Sacca provides another piece of connective tissue. When Sacca turned up on StartUp, he was brusque and honest — exactly what you'd expect from a busy billionaire. Here, all his edges are artlessly sanded away: He's as smoothly artificial as the rest of the show.

The first season of StartUp, about NPR alum Alex Blumberg founding his own podcast company, was uncommonly intelligent, revealing and unafraid. It sometimes got deep into the weeds about equity, valuation and the pitching process, and was all the more stronger for it. Alex, Inc. is its source material's opposite: timid, broad and saccharine even by the standards of ABC's family-friendly fare (of which I'm generally a fan). The raiding of podcast IPs by TV execs may continue unabated, but Alex, Inc. offers no reasons why the trend should continue.

The new series is simply too old-fashioned to feel relevant. Braff's Alex Schuman, a 37-year-old bored public-radio host, is a close cousin of the actor’s Scrubs character: a sputtering, four-eyed weenie who undergoes a crisis of masculine inadequacy in each of the three episodes available for review. (Alex, Inc. is created by Scrubs vet Matt Tarses.) Alex struggles to assert himself at the workplace against his brash, overconfident cousin (Michael Imperioli) and his gifted but slobberingly-in-love-with-her-boss producer (Hillary Anne Matthews in an uncomfortable role). Tiya Sircar, who was rivetingly hilarious in NBC's The Good Place, is given little to do as Alex's put-upon wife. Worst of all, the most memorable jokes involve Alex repeatedly falling down.

The writing also makes it hard to care about podcasting, a medium that the show barely explains for outsiders. Alex justifies dipping into the family's 401k by declaring that his new podcasting firm "could change the whole world," but never explains how that could possibly be the case. We only see Alex self-indulgently recording his every thought into a microphone, like "and now I'm pouring my coffee." Naturally, he annoys his wife and groan-inducingly precocious children (Elisha Henig and Audyssie James), and the show frames him as exasperating for doing so. If Alex, Inc. were a satire about vanity and self-regard in the podcasting world, that would be fine, but we're supposed to root for the protagonist's success in the realm, not roll our eyes at him, as the show keeps inviting us to do. Braff's shticky hamminess, too, proves a great barrier to his likability. 

Alex, Inc. crawls out of the gate; by the third episode, the fledgling company still needs a name. Personal epiphanies prove a formidable foe to professional efficiency: Alex has to learn, episode after episode, how to feel and project confidence. (Try a self-help book, dude.) Meanwhile, the dozens of probably excellent podcast episodes on my phone that are waiting to be heard serve as a reminder that life's too short to watch some charmless twerp gradually grow a spine.

Cast: Zach Braff, Michael Imperioli, Tiya Sircar, Elisha Henig, Hillary Anne Matthews, Audyssie James
Creator-showrunner: Matt Tarses
Premieres: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)