For an actor, playing a character who becomes iconic is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means security and recognition for years. On the other, it can be incredibly tricky to disentangle yourself from the specter of that character and make an audience see you as someone completely different.
Such is the challenge now facing Jenna Fischer (who broke through as mousy receptionist Pam on The Office) and Zach Braff (who made a name for himself as the goofy J.D. on Scrubs before taking a hard left turn into introspective mumblecore). Both are hoping to anchor new ABC family sitcoms, remind viewers of their skills, and tell different, ostensibly more mature kinds of stories.
Years after their breakthrough sitcoms, Fischer and Braff now get to star as parents struggling to adjust to huge changes in their previously picture-perfect lives. On Splitting Up Together, Fischer plays Lena, a mom of three who tries to keep things civil with her ex (Oliver Hudson) after their separation, while rediscovering what it means to be a single woman with desires of her own.
On Alex, Inc., Braff plays a radio producer who quits his cushy job to start his own podcast company — a real story based on that of Gimlet founder Alex Blumberg — while his wife Rooni (Tiya Sircar) works to keep their lives together. (Alex, Inc. was also created by Scrubs producer Matt Tarses and is executive-produced by Braff.)
As was inevitable, shades of Pam and J.D. linger — but one actor’s show succeeds at standing on its own far more than the other.
Alex, Inc. doesn’t have nearly enough charisma to pull off the “dreams matter!” fantasy it’s pushing
I’m perfectly willing to accept that Blumberg’s real-life story of setting out on his own to create a business from the ground up is an inspiring one. As presented on Alex, Inc., however, it comes off more like the careless whims of a guy who’s been complimented all his life and believes that upending his family’s existence is the necessary cost of chasing an inadvisable dream.
This isn’t, to be clear, what the show itself wants to sell. From the get-go, it paints Alex (Braff) as a particularly brilliant producer who might be in over his head but whose dreams are too big to be locked down by something resembling reality. But the trouble with a show insisting that someone is a genius is that it has to go ahead and prove it, and nothing Alex does is particularly convincing in this arena.
Instead, Alex flounders while Rooni, a successful public defender with a full plate of her own, makes huge adjustments to her busy schedule to pick up his slack. He doesn’t know what to tell his two employees — a sleazy cousin played by Michael Imperioli and a starry-eyed producer played by Hillary Anne Matthews — about the company they’re trying to create, nor does he ever seem to have a fully realized idea of what it is he wants to do beyond “tell real stories.” The fact that the first episode ends with Alex concluding that the most meaningful story is that of himself — complete with running podcast voiceover — speaks volumes about the guy, and not in the way the show thinks it does.
Three episodes in, Alex, Inc. settles into a more comfortable and slightly less irritating groove, especially in the brief moments when it gives Sircar and their kids (played with a cheeky bite by Elisa Hennig and Audyssie James) time to be their own people outside of Alex’s ambitions. Hopefully, going forward, those moments won’t be so few and far between.
Alex, Inc. premieres Wednesday, March 28, at 8:30 pm on ABC.
Once Splitting Up Together lets go of its kitschy conceit, it can be a lot of fun!
Splitting Up Together will not especially surprise anyone familiar with creator Emily Kapnek, whose Suburgatory evolved from a suburban satire into an astute sitcom about the many different ways families can look and function. Splitting Up Together also takes on the dissatisfied residents of the wealthier suburbs, but concentrates solely on the parents trying to be their own people outside of their kids and responsibilities.
The first episode leans hard on the premise that likely sold the show in the first place: Once Lena and Martin (Hudson) tell their friends and family that they’re divorcing with the matter-of-fact tone you might use to explain that you can’t make the barbecue after all, they set about implementing an unusual co-parenting system to keep things fair. They’ll switch off parental duties every other week, with one parent taking their “time off” in the adjoining garage while the other one gets the house, kids, and all the responsibilities therein. As was inevitable and obvious, hijinks ensue.
But over the course of its first four episodes, Splitting Up Together is at its best when it leaves the granular ins and outs of this arrangement for the ways Lena and Martin are dealing with not being a unit anymore. For Martin, taking on all the responsibilities of the house wakes him up to the fact that he’s been sleepwalking through his own life, taking it (and Lena) for granted. For Lena, getting a week off means getting the room to explore herself and her needs — which, as she admits in a burst of embarrassed passion, includes breaking a two-year dry spell, stat.
Hudson is charming, and as Lena’s wayward sister Maya, Diane Farr brings actual humanity to a wacky trope. But the standout is still Fischer, who takes Lena from the uptight killjoy she could be and helps make her an actual woman learning to balance love for her family with her increasing excitement at getting to live a new life that puts her first.
Maybe not everyone will be able to shake the Pam of it all when they see her; when one of my co-workers glanced over at my screen and saw Fischer in a tight dress, he asked me with very real alarm, “Why is Pam doing that?!” But that would be a shame. As Fischer ably proves, she’s been long overdue her own spotlight, so she’s gonna make the most of what she gets.
Splitting Up Together premieres Tuesday, March 27, at 9:30 pm on ABC.