Are podcasts the way of the future? That is ostensibly the main conceit of Alex Inc., the new Zach Braff vehicle from ABC. Braff plays Alex Schuman, a podcast company employee that quits to become a podcast company mogul. To accomplish this, Alex must navigate being a father, husband, and citizen of whatever LA studio stands in for Brooklyn these days. The focus on a burgeoning industry gives Alex Inc. a sense of timeliness, but the show’s attempts to depict intimacy reveal it for the retrograde sitcom it is. Podcasts might, as Alex claims in the pilot, change the world, but this isn’t a podcast.
Alex Schuman is introduced as a passive visionary mass producing feel-good stories. He has a great idea for a new company that does the same thing as his current company but somehow better — we’re not getting into the details of how Alex Blumberg monetized Gimlet here — and dreams about making a move. He doesn’t. Then he does. Why? Essentially because he wants to. Alex giving up his comfortable job, which helps provide for his family, in order to belatedly chase a dream is an act of selfishness the show doesn’t really grapple with. Because Alex’s success feels assured, his decision seems bold. In fact, it puts the comfort of his loved ones at risk.
That’s not to say Alex does the wrong thing, merely that the show doesn’t really engage with the ramifications of failure in a profound way. The show does not do what the podcast it is based on, Blumberg’s StartUp, did so well: trace the line between ambition and recklessness. Whereas StartUp wrestled with payroll, taxes, incorporations et all, Alex Inc. presents its hero as a fully-formed leader who just needs some help (in the pilot, that help is played by real-life investor Chris Sacca, who is likely not as nice as his new TV character).
In the pilot episode, Alex dips into his family’s 401k to fund a slow in a co-working space, despite promising his wife – played by The Good Place’s Tiya Sircar, who is criminally underused– that he wouldn’t. This has the potential to create a whole hell of a lot of drama. It very curiously does not. Rooni finds out about the transgression about halfway through the pilot and has forgiven her husband roughly 11 minutes later. She does not ask him how he intends to record in an open-plan office. She does not seem to suspect that she’s married to the world’s worst audio engineer.
It’s hinted that Rooni is keeping the family afloat by doubling down on her cases at work, while also taking care of the kids. It’s further hinted that this is, you know, totally fine. In a way, this represents a modern twist on the 1950s housewife trope. Rooni keeps the house clean and also pays the mortgage. She seems to feel blessed to be married to a twitchy white guy. It’s the sort of dynamic that would spark post-double date conversation.
The politics and themes in Alex Inc. betray its desires to be a modern take on the family sitcom, but it doesn’t have the confidence to go there. Instead, it sticks to the conventions of an old form. The real twist is that the stakes are comically low. Alex didn’t have it so badly before. His genius is probably just restlessness. Will his company succeed? Yes. Sure. Probably. But if it doesn’t he can go back to doing what he was doing or just rely on his wife. The podcast worked because it was about the details. The show fails because it doesn’t focus on them. It can’t. It’s TV.