When Alexa met Sandra: Kristen Wiig stars in new podcast drama

In Gimlet Media's new podcast, there's a whole weird world behind the way our questions to Alexa or Siri-like figures are answered.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
3 min read

Kristen Wiig provides the voice of virtual assistant Sandra in a new podcast from Gimlet Media.

Gimlet Media

Alexa , what time is it in London? Hey Siri, where's the nearest Walgreens? OK Google, what song is this? Our personal virtual assistants are making themselves invaluable, but maybe there's more to them than meets the voice command.

In Sandra, a new seven-episode fiction podcast available Wednesday from Gimlet Media, actress Kristen Wiig of Bridesmaids fame voices Sandra, a virtual personal assistant much like one you might have sitting on your nightstand.

"Any likeness to a virtual personal assistant (you may know) is purely coincidental," jokes Alex Blumberg, Gimlet's CEO and co-founder.

The new podcast is something of a Black Mirror-meets-Her story that follows the answers Sandra spews out in response to her clients' many questions. It's almost old-school for those of us who remember calling reference librarians to ask everything from the capital of Delaware to help identifying a pretty bird. But in those days there were actual people handing out the information.

Wiig voices the Sandra of the title -- at least the smooth-sounding Sandra that users hear. But Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) plays Helen, who works behind the scenes at the company that makes Sandra, and who's really providing many of the answers. Ethan Hawke plays Helen's boss, Dustin, with Christopher Abbott (Girls) as her ne'er-do-well ex-husband, Donny.

Kristen Wiig

Kristen Wiig voices the smooth-sounding Sandra AI.

Jason LaVeris

Sandra is fiction, but it's a peek into a world of virtual assistants that feels almost real. I've listened to three episodes, and it's a fast-moving and thought-provoking show, with Hawke's Dustin an especially fun character.

"What we liked about it was it's a way of engaging with this reality," Blumberg said. "The human story behind the machines."

The episodes reveal that Sandra and her human helpers know a frightening amount about their clients, from credit-card purchases to wedding plans. If you're getting a Cambridge Analytica vibe, join the club.

"I don't think you have to try very hard to make that (connection)," Blumberg said. "Our machines know everything about us."

Wiig and Hawke are two pretty major names for the fairly new medium of podcasting, and Blumberg says Gimlet was thrilled to have them. 

"They have lots and lots of options," he said. Since recording a multi-episode podcast isn't as time-consuming as, say, a Hollywood movie, the schedule commitment worked out. "They get to do a really cool project and don't have to sign up for a lot of time," he said.

And Wiig's role wasn't an easy one -- thanks to the humans feeding her answers, this Sandra isn't as robotic as the one on your desk. 

"She needs to be playing a piece of technology, and also she needs to be explaining things in the words of a human," Blumberg says. "I think she did an amazing job."

But Sandra is more about the people than the machines. Its story of Helen-as-Sandra delivering responses walks hand-in-hand with the story of Helen's own life, which doesn't offer the simple answers upon which her job relies. 

"This is a human story, about someone trying to make a better life for herself," Blumberg says.

And if new podcast listeners are drawn in by the marquee names of Wiig and Hawke, that's fine.

"Come for the name, stay for the content," Blumberg said.

All seven episodes of Sandra are now available for download.

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