This week, I sat down with a friend and some passion fruit margaritas to watch the first five episodes of Alex, Inc., the ABC show based on Gimlet’s podcast StartUp. StartUp tells the story of Alex Blumberg creating none other than Gimlet Media itself.
I didn’t want to watch Alex, Inc., because not a thing about Alex, Inc. interests me aside from the fact that it’s based on a podcast. I don’t like traditional sitcoms, and haven’t since The Nanny; I’m much more into off-the-wall, absurdist shows like The Good Place or Community. I didn’t like Scrubs, or Garden State, or pretty much anything Zach Braff has worked on–not to mention his consistently woobified characters who are always sad, inept, bland men who are borderline parasitic on the women refuse to see as actual humans (more on this later). I also don’t even really like most Gimlet productions, to be honest.
Still, my friends and family were all alarmed that I didn’t want to watch Alex, Inc. purely because it’s about an industry I love so much. I didn’t want to watch the show, but I was sick of not having an answer to peoples’ questions about it. I went in thinking maybe this would pay off, maybe it’d give me a clearer idea of how podcasts will be adapted in the future. I ended the fifth episode praying that wouldn’t be the case.
I also ended the fifth episode wondering who could possibly be the target audience for Alex, Inc. For being a show about podcasting, it seems to hate podcasters; for being a show about new media, it seems entirely skewed by antiquated writing, pacing, and sentiment.
Before jumping into analysis, I did livetweet the experience of watching. If you’d like a more, ah, unfiltered and focused run-down of these episodes, the thread starts here:
But can be easily summarized by this tweet:
Alex, Inc. focuses on a fictionalized Alex Blumberg, here called Alex Schuman, and his process to start his podcast company, Gimlet Media, here eventually called Ajana. In the beginning episode, the audience watches as Alex leaves his comfortable reporting job due to frustrating creative differences. Alex sees himself as a journalistic renegade, too ahead of his times to be taken seriously by those in traditional reporting: he wants to tell real stories about real people. He wants to be a part of the burgeoning podcasting industry, which he thinks can save the world.
Ideally, this would be motivating. This would endear the viewer to Alex in his quest to make art that can actually change the world. What it actually winds up doing is making Alex a protagonist that no audience can find sympathetic.
First, there’s the potential Alex, Inc. audience who doesn’t listen to podcasts, but instead just wants to watch a nice, inspiring sitcom. This trope and structure are age-old and should make for a simple formula for success. The problem is that Alex isn’t likeable, and that choice seems intentional by the writers, which makes this quest feel like a joke. Usually, when it comes to Misunderstood Visionary stories, the audience understands why the protagonist’s art is important, because they’ve experienced the art in some way. We’ve seen the protagonist play a beautiful song or paint a beautiful painting or some such. In Alex, Inc., we see Alex recording comically bad audio from his bed.
It isn’t until the second or maybe third episode that he even has the concept for a podcast–and he isn’t the one who has it. His wife is the one who comes up with the idea when Alex is put on the spot and realizes he has no plans. The viewer watches as his family’s financial burden is placed entirely on the shoulders of his supportive wife, and then watches as he pulls money out of their 401K to fund his passion–that the audience has been shown he’s bad at, or doesn’t really known anything about. This show wants you to believe in Alex and his podcast network while also consistently making him and his industry a joke. It’s tonally baffling, a whiplash of sympathies and jokes that both land nowhere.
So, perhaps the intended audience here is podcasters, or people familiar with the medium. This should track: most people I know who love Once, for instance, are people who love singing angrily while playing an acoustic guitar or a piano. Podcasting is still niche, so it makes sense that its target audience would be those in the niche.
Alex, Inc. fails on many levels when it comes to appealing to podcasters. The first and most surface-level is also likely the most well-known complaint about the show so far: its thorough misunderstanding of how a microphone works. The thread starting with this tweet is a great look at just how painful and distracting this is for podcasters:
This might seem like a small or nitpicky complaint. I’ve heard the argument that a general audience wouldn’t care about this–but again, I cannot imagine this show appealing to a general audience. It’s especially alarming to see this show get so much wrong when Zach Braff’s other most notable show, Scrubs, has been lauded for its industry accuracy. For viewers who are interested because they know podcasting, this is a pretty criminal offense, given it’s not exactly hard to show the reality of podcasting: sitting in a closet with a $50 Blue Snowball mic.
And therein lies what the infraction here really is for a podcaster audience: Alex, Inc. posits that podcasting–or, perhaps, good podcasting–is something that requires thousands and thousands of dollars, dipping into your 401K. Setting up this position has two effects on the audience of podcasters who might watch the show:
- It feels completely removed from reality, immediately breaking suspension of disbelief. The writing for how making a podcast works seems completely removed from reality. The entire time we watched, both my friend and I could not buy these scenarios in which the show asserted the podcast needed thousands and thousands more dollars to exist. Podcasting is an appealing medium specifically because it’s a relatively low-cost art form. Consistently, I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t he just Skype a guest in?”
- Podcasting is not a medium of the moneyed on a grand scale: most podcasters I know don’t have a 401K, let alone the incredible recording equipment Alex seems to use. This immediately makes his plight unsympathetic to podcasters. The idea that he simply could quit his day job to pursue podcasting is a dream come true for most people in the industry, and his “struggle” is laughable, if not harmful. The position seems to be that if you can’t afford quitting your day job to pursue your art using the best possible equipment, you’re not a real podcaster making real art.
I cannot fathom anyone who knows about podcasting feeling sympathetic towards Alex Schuman or the show itself. It’s removed from any reality of making podcasts. It asserts that the medium requires massive overhead to be quality–the kind of gatekeeping that, fortunately, the podcasting community doesn’t usually have to abide. It’s not just frustrating, but also somewhat insidious. Is this how people outside the medium will think of podcast creators? Could this show stop would-be creators in their tracks because they’ll worry over cost? (Probably not, because is anyone actually watching this show? It’s still a worrying notion, though.)
Similarly alienating for the podcasting audience is the basic premise of the show. Alex, Inc. is a fictionalized account of a documentary series on a real-life company, Gimlet Media. It’s . . . a strange setup. Gimlet isn’t a small name in the industry. It’s one of the bigger networks with some of the best name recognition. It’s strange, then, that seemingly the only character based on a real person is Alex Schuman, based on Alex Blumberg. It’s hard not to wonder about if there’s going to be a Starlee Kine parallel character (who is hopefully, hopefully not the assistant character Dierdre), and whether it would be classier to gloss over that whole fiasco or show the truth behind the Gimlet Media story in full. It’s strange to see the company eventually named the slightly appropriative Ajana when Gimlet Media is largely cited in each episode’s opening credits. For people who are interested in podcasting, it’s a strange and uncanny mix of truth and fiction, which would be fine if the two didn’t have such clunky, clumsy intersections.
So, if Alex, Inc. isn’t for a general audience and also isn’t for a podcasting audience, who is it for–and what does it say about podcasting and podcast adaptations?
Before I jump into why this show frustrates me so much as an entity, I can’t not explain other ways the show feels like a complete failure:
- The show feels built for a laugh track but doesn’t have one–something that I kept thinking about while listening to 99% Invisible‘s recent episode on laugh tracks.
- The show is shockingly racist, and not even if very subtle ways. One episode hinges on a Hispanic nanny’s language gaps and hot temper. Another episode’s plot culminates to an “Indian food is spicy” joke. In its best spheres, podcasting is a beautifully diverse medium, and these antiquated jokes feel antithetical to what much of the medium stands for.
- Similarly, each episode feels incredibly misogynistic. Aside from Alex’s wife, Rooni, women are depicted as inept, fangirlish, too nagging, or just tertiary. The main female character aside from Rooni, Dierdre, constantly fawns over Alex while doing her job, because apparently she isn’t allowed to just be a woman who is good at her job.
- It just isn’t funny. It tries so hard for humor, but it’s obviously trying so hard for humor. It throws jokes after joke at the wall, all seemingly from different types of sitcoms, not a one feeling organic.
It’s difficult to leave five episodes of Alex, Inc. feeling optimistic about the future of podcast adaptations. At best, Alex, Inc. will be canceled after one season and forgotten by both viewers and network executives, not seen as proof that podcast adaptations are a bad plan. At worst, Alex, Inc. will somehow survive, slowly becoming what The Big Bang Theory is to nerd culture but for podcasts.
At worst, it will show that this is how you adapt podcasts. You make them more accessible to (apparently?) a wider audience, erasing so much of what makes podcasting an important medium. At worst, it will keep prolonging the idea that podcasters are misguided not-quite-youths blowing too much money on a passion, only to accidentally slip into some fateful fame they likely didn’t really earn.
This is, likely, far too cynical an outlook. I highly doubt that an adaptation of The Bright Sessions will go as sour, and I expect Tanis fans will have similar hopes and expectations for that show, too. With announcements like Gimlet’s Sandra being acquired for TV, though, it’s hard not to wonder how much this will hurt the image of an already maligned medium. It’s worrying to think that these adaptations will help nobody in the long run except maybe the TV networks running them, though I suppose this is par for the course.
For now, you won’t be catching me returning to Alex, Inc. anytime soon, with or without a margarita. Instead, I’ll be holding onto the hope that future podcast adaptations will at least have a basic understanding of their audiences, maybe even helping the podcast industry in the process.
An update, 5/11/18: Alex, Inc. has officially been canceled by ABC. We’ll see how it plays out in the long-run, if this will be used as an example or simply forgotten. For now, I’m happy to be spared watching, even if it comes with the perk of passion fruit margaritas.