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'Alex, Inc.' and the Art of Podcast Storytelling – on TV
March 28, 2018  | By David Hinckley

ABC’s new Alex, Inc. proves again that the phrase “based on a hit podcast” still isn’t synonymous with “great sitcom.”

Alex, Inc., which premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET, stars Zach Braff (top) as Alex Schuman, a reasonably successful husband, father, and businessman who decides in his 30s that he will pursue his dream of starting a podcast company.

The idea can’t miss, he tells his wife, Rooni (Tiya Sircar, right). Podcasts are the new wave, the next big media thing, the breakout platform, and by starting his own company, he can become part of the ground floor.

She’s supportive, despite the fact he doesn’t fully disclose his plan for financing this startup.

He gets further support from Deirdre (Hillary Anne Matthews), his giggly and apparently competent producer, who has a schoolgirl crush on him.

And team Alex is rounded out by his cousin Eddie (Michael Imperioli, below), who’s nominally the salesman and promoter, but who moves like he may still have some of his Sopranos connections in his iPhone contact list.  

It’s a classic sitcom posse. Quirky, generally likeable, and dysfunctional enough to set up some laughs.

A key clue to what’s happening with Alex, Inc., however, is the subject of the first episode.

Alex has a real talent for telling a story, which is what a successful podcast does.

When his kids are sitting at the table staring down at their devices, like 95% of their peer group, Alex does a quick improv, making up a story and adding sound effects in the style of 1930s radio broadcasts – a whistling wind, an alarm going off, that sort of thing.

The kids buy in. They stop looking at their devices. So yes, we’re convinced Alex has the storytelling skill to attract an audience for his podcast.

To sell his idea to someone with the money to help produce and promote it, however, Alex needs more than a quick story that entertains his kids.

He thinks he has the right story, only to have it fall through, and his pitch to the only rich guy he knows trails off into an awkward verbal stumble.

Then he saves the day by selling the rich guy on something else: Alex will make a podcast about his own story.

Is there a better capsulization of media today? I’m going to talk about . . . myself! Excellent!

Now, in fact, that’s what the real-life Alex Blumberg did when he launched his real-life podcast network, the real-life Gimlet Media.

Nor is Alex Blumberg a millennial raised on selfies. He was a long-time fixture on National Public Radio’s This American Life, where he was indeed a wonderful storyteller. Since he broke off on his own in 2014, Gimlet has been quite successful.

It’s certainly a success to sell your story to a major TV broadcast network for development as a series.

That does not, however, automatically make the series compelling.

What has a better shot at achieving that goal would be the incorporation of stories Alex finds for his podcast. Meaning not just the one about himself.  

The rest of us should be rooting for Alex, Inc., too, because in the age of Twitter, good old-fashioned storytelling needs all the champions it can get.

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