I love Alex Blumberg, the founder of Gimlet Media, and — for those of you who listen to Reply All — the “No,” in most of the “Yes, Yes, No” segments. He’s the unhip Dad of Gimlet Media, a guy who leans in and transforms that lack of cool into something relatable and charming. He’s also built a hell of a podcast empire, mostly by creating podcasts built around his personality: He’s a great storyteller, deeply into making the arcane and impenetrable relatable and understanding, just as he did with NPR’s Planet Money podcast, a show about finances and the economy that I still listen to fairly regularly though I have little to no interest in either.
Back in 2014, Blumberg left his successful gig at Planet Money and This American Life to start Gimlet before anyone really considered that podcasts could generate profits. He documented — and continues to document — those efforts in his podcast StartUp, which explores the minutia of building a podcast company, from finding capital to coming up with a name to launching new podcasts and ending financially unsuccessful podcast. It sounds boring, and it might be with anyone other than Blumberg, but there’s something about the way he narrates it that makes it engaging. He’s learning on the job, and we learn right along with him. The first season of StartUp was often so inspiring that I wanted to run out and start my own business, before remembering that I already had.
Alex, Inc., the new ABC sitcom based on StartUp, is not like that. At all. It’s bad. Creator Matt Tarses takes some of the details from StartUp but he captures none of the spirit of the podcast, and that’s the exact opposite of the way a good adaptation should work. I’d go so far as to say that some of the choices he makes in the pilot actively angered me, like depicting Alex Schuman (Zach Braff) as a guy who starts his own podcast network after growing disillusioned with the feel-good programming of his radio gig, “Cheer Up!” THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED. And in this respect, it matters. Blumberg had the greatest job in the world, and he quit not out of disillusionment, but because he wanted to make something for himself.
Chris Sacco, who was Blumberg’s original investor, also shows up here in the pilot as Schuman’s original investor; both Blumberg and Schuman’s wife are of Iranian descent; they have kids, and the first episode in both the sitcom and the podcast tackle the Alexs’ “unfair advantage,” but beyond that, there is next-to-no similarities between the two, so much so that I wonder if Blumberg honestly even likes the sitcom. It’s “zany” and over-the-top; there’s a stalker-like assistant who is in love with Alex; the family storyline is overly conventional and weak; and Braff is never able to capture even a little bit of what makes Blumberg such a great real-life character.
In fact, Alex, Inc. feels like one of those sitcoms that has all the personality zapped out of it by focus testing, and it pushes the best thing about StartUp — the founding a podcast network — into the background so it can play up the son’s magic. Part of what makes StartUp so appealing is that we get just enough of his family to always leave us wanting more, but never so much that we tire of them. In the show, I was tired of them after 22 minutes.
That said, while I hold out very little hope for Alex, Inc., I’m not gonna give up on it yet. Tarses and Braff teamed up for one of my favorite sitcoms ever, Scrubs, and I am obviously enamored enough with Blumberg to see if the series can right itself. After the pilot, however, it’s going to have to completely retool — become almost another show altogether — if it has any chance of succeeding.