It's been eight years since Scrubs went off the air, and Zach Braff has essentially been in TV retirement ever since. Except for some one-off appearances here and there, he's focused instead on his work behind the camera as a producer and director. But with ABC's family-friendly comedy Alex, Inc., Braff makes his long-awaited return to TV as a series regular, where he got his start so long ago: on a broadcast TV comedy.
Alex, Inc. is inspired by the real-life StartUp podcast, which chronicles what it's really like to start a business. The show revolves around the life of a radio journalist named Alex Schuman (yes, he's a real person — he just has a different last name) who, fed up with not getting to tell the stories he wants to tell, quits his secure job to start his own podcast company. Series star Braff plays a character that Scrubs fans will instantly recognize, because Alex Schuman is so clearly a version of himself. "I'm not Daniel Day Lewis, I'm not going to wear prosthetics and play Lincoln," Braff tells Bustle, sitting on the Alex, Inc. set while taking a quick break from filming. "What I like doing is playing versions of my own personality."
And he's maintained that MO throughout his whole career. "Scrubs was the super silly goofy version," Braff says. "In my films I'm playing a more realistic, dramatic version. Here, I'm playing a hybrid. I'm still playing a silly dad, a dad who talks to his kids like he's a kid too." That character was partly born out of the real-life inspiration for the series along with the fact that Braff just loves kids. "I'm an uncle so I tap into that," he adds. "I want kids one day myself."
But despite how perfect the character is for Braff, this big return to TV as a series regular almost didn't happen. "I didn't even know that I was going to return to broadcast TV," he says. "I thought when I got back to TV, I'll probably do something edgy on cable, [that] kind of thing, because that's so fun and we're all bingeing those shows that are so amazing on TV, the ones that everyone's talking about."
Instead of seeking out a darker, more adult cable or streaming series, Braff was approached with Alex, Inc. While going in for a meeting with one of the executive producers, he was told to listen to the StartUp podcast on his way home. "He said, 'Look, I know you're not thinking of going back to TV, especially broadcast, right now, but just listen to it,'" Braff remembers. "I go, 'Eh, I'm here to talk about directing projects. I don't know.'"
He started listening to the very first episode of StartUp, and like everyone else who starts listening to a popular podcast, he was hooked. "By the time I got home, I was sitting in my driveway listening to the next one and the next one," Braff says. "It's everything I love about Shark Tank, all these families that come in and want to go after the American Dream. To me, this is as though we've gone into the world of one of those families after they left and we're following their story."
Officially bitten by the podcast bug with StartUp, Braff was sold on Alex, Inc. "The fact that it was a real story, I always go back to that," he says. "Obviously we've adapted it and made it our own and made it a broadcast comedy, but the skeleton of the story is based on something that really happened, which makes it extra special." Braff was so enamored with StartUp that he even took some of the original dialogue from the podcast and dropped it into the pilot.
Part family comedy and part workplace comedy, Alex, Inc. attempts to redefine what the "American Dream" as the concept has evolved with the introduction of new technology.
"When you watch those families on Shark Tank and you watch their backstory and you see how they put everything on the line and the sacrifices they've made because their dream is to start their own business and be able to put their kids through school, I feel like that's the new American Dream," Braff says. "To be self-sufficient and on your own and have it be your idea. A lot of people can relate to that."
By telling the true story of a family that did it, Braff hopes to inspire others to follow their dreams. "The way we created the show is you can tap in and insert your own dream there, your own company idea there," he says. "Doing it because you want to have a better life for your family and hopefully feel fulfilled in what you're doing. My character is a really sensitive, funny storyteller and only in America can he find a way to try and monetize that. Based on the true story, he really did."
While Braff is once again returning to acting full time in front of the camera, that doesn't mean he's given up on his roles behind the camera. The acclaimed producer and director is pulling double duty and directing a lot of the episodes of Alex, Inc.'s first season, including the pilot.
"It's really, really hard [directing myself] because there's not a single moment of downtime," Braff says. Even in a movie when I'm directing myself you at least have a little bit of downtime in that there is lunch or you go home. When you're doing a show, when I'm directing, even at lunch you go and edit or when we wrap, we have to be turning around these edits to hand in to the network. It's particularly hard and you have to move so fast."
But directing himself has also opened Braff's eyes to what he considers the trickiest thing about directing in general. "The easiest place for something to go awry is when the actor and the director are not on the same page about what they're making — in tone, style, or how broad something is or how the scene's going to play," he says. "I've been in situations on both sides of that where you weren't clicking. I get to remove what I think is the hardest element of it because he and I really agree. We each think the other is a genius," Braff jokes. And Braff's own approval should be more than enough for his fans eagerly anticipating his return to TV.