One of Apple TV+’s early projects was a Whitney Cummings-helmed comedy firmly rooted in the #MeToo movement – unsurprisingly, it was canceled when Apple executives balked at the idea of hosting such politically charged content.
Then Hillary Clinton’s press secretary walked in with a #MeToo-themed drama based on a CNN’s anchor’s poorly-reviewed book, and Apple said: “Here’s $300 million.”
Everything about The Morning Show bows at the temple of Late Sorkin, shows whose neutered centrist politics bleed through indulgent monologues, carelessly crafting limp arguments and diatribes around events nakedly parallel to our own world.
The strange optics are a rather apt reflection of Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, one of the more confounding high-profile dramas in recent years. Comparisons to Aaron Sorkin’s HBO disaster The Newsroom might seem lazy and obvious, but there’s really no comparing it to anything else. From shot composition to dialogue and performance, everything about The Morning Show bows at the temple of Late Sorkin, shows whose neutered centrist politics bleed through indulgent monologues, carelessly crafting limp arguments and diatribes around events nakedly parallel to our own world.
It, unfortunately, begins with one of 2019’s worst pilots, a grating 63-minute introduction to its world of morally compromised broadcast news players. As it builds out its world of producers, lackeys, stars, and C-suite executives, The Morning Show‘s first (and most of its second) hour painfully imitates the worst Sorkin-isms with glee, a series of painfully overt character introductions and an overwhelming feeling the script is about five years behind on the many conversations it wants to have about gender, power, political conflict, and the state of broadcast news.
At the center of it all is Jennifer Aniston, relishing in the decidedly two-dimensional Alex Levy, host of the eponymous show-within-a-show. When the delicate balance she’s found between being a mother, a star, and a serious contributor to the morning show culture, is disrupted by sexual misconduct allegations against her co-host Mitch Kessler (Steven Carell, doing the best he can with it all), it becomes an inflection point in her career.
To her credit, Aniston justifies the hype of her streaming debut; her committed performance allows her to run the full emotional gamut of Alex’s life, grounding her with an emotional restraint I only wish carried through to the writing. Both to its benefit and detriment, it writes around its star, offering Aniston all the room in the world for showy, dedicated, awards bait. And though it carefully avoids falling completely into a series of tropes and cliches about women almost having it all – and what they’re willing to sacrifice to achieve it – there’s no denying how the basic notes of her character are pounding over and over in early episodes, to dull effect.
The same goes for Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson, a woman whose Libertarian opinions and rough edges have stalled her career as a try-hard journalist… for a conservative news outlet (twist!). In the pilot, Bradley gets fired for yelling at someone during a protest against the coal industry, a speech that absolutely belongs in the Both Sides-ism Hall of Fame. Experienced and naive, whip-smart but held back by her own intelligence, Witherspoon’s overbearing presence as Bradley combines with some of the show’s clumsiest writing, an unremarkable attempt to subvert expectations on multiple levels.
Jackson’s character begins to come together by the third hour (once Jay Carson, the show’s creator, was fired and no longer credited on scripts), after she’s thrown unexpectedly into the mix by an Alex Levy power move; “unexpected” in that Bradley didn’t see it coming, though it is painfully obvious to even the most casual observer where the first 110-plus minutes of plot is heading. But it’s a painful road to get there, one full of asides about blue-collar upbringings and frustrations with the left and right (centrism, baby!), with the obligatory tinges of bad mom drama and professional insecurity.
Bradley’s character becomes an unfortunate mouthpiece for all the issues The Morning Show is woefully equipped to handle; the fossil fuel industry, what’s wrong with broadcast news… and in “That Women,” abortion, when she accidentally (or…??) reveals what the show treats as a Deep, Dark Secret of her past… and then immediately drops as an actual plot halfway through “That Woman,” folding it into the background noise that is the capital-d Drama surrounding the fictional Morning Show.
(This happens on her second broadcast, I might add, during her attempt to subtly undermine the wickedly facile dialogue being fed to everyone from cue cards and teleprompters.)
The benefit of having such a large, talented cast and prestigious directors (Mimi Leder and Lynn Shelton direct three of the first four hours) does allow The Morning Show to occasionally stumble into being quite watchable. There’s strange chemistry to the cast, and it combines with the sharp direction to breathe life in between the many instances where The Morning Show trips over itself with bloated plots and repetitive character beats.
There are a number of scenes in the third and fourth episode that are genuinely compelling, in a sadistic kind of way: the writing and performances are so confident and dedicated to what they’re trying to say, even when it is blindingly obvious The Morning Show is ill-equipped to catalyze on the many compelling ideas it throws into the mix. It can be fun to watch, an incongruous relationship between style and substance that is occasionally intoxicating in the sheer ludicrousness of it all.
But mostly, The Morning Show is just tiring in its dissonance, and its clear horniness for moderation and careful reinforcement of systemic norms – it is more interested in getting participation trophies for being in complex sociopolitical conversations, than actually having a concrete point of view on anything (it’s like the anti-Superstore in a lot of ways). The first four episodes are a confluence of elements, brash lead performances clashing with the naturalistic work of the show-within-a-show characters around them, all trying to convincingly deliver the dramatic equivalent of sugar-coated chalk. There are certainly some tasty, addictive qualities to The Morning Show; but those delicious morsels are overwhelmed by the bitter, archaic nature of its central narrative and episodic flow.
It is certainly fascinating to watch a show consistently jump in the deep end without knowing how to swim – it’s just not entertaining to watch The Morning Show flounder around helplessly scene after scene, a creative misfire of epically-budgeted proportions.
$300 million and those are the best opening credits you could come up with? Dots?
It is interesting how Steve Carell is listed among the main cast; he is not in these first four episodes very much – and when he is, it offers some of the show’s most uncomfortably strained writing.
This show constantly cuts to a shot of a clock alarm going off at 3:30 am. Literally every day that passes on the show, we get Bradley or Alex slamming the alarm off. WE GET IT.
Mark Duplass co-stars as the longtime producer of The Morning Show; of the show’s collection of idiotic male characters, his Charlie is rather carefully constructed. It is unexpectedly strong, and stands in interesting contrast to Billy Crudup’s Cory Ellison, a network executive Crudup clearly relishes in making a brash, exaggerated performance.
There’s a subplot about a simpleton weatherman (the always-welcome Nestor Carbonell) and the young producer he’s hooking up with. She’s apparently from a rich, influential family? It kind of feels like this show’s 2019-ified take on Sports Night’s Jeremy and Natalie.
Yes, there is an episode that ends with an acoustic version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”… spoiler: it is the episode that has a Kelly Clarkson cameo.
Karen Pittman chews up scenery as Mia, a very pragmatic producer, and Bradley’s guiding hand.
The second episode focuses pretty intently on Alex’s role as a mother… and then her daughter basically disappears without mention? I’m sure they’ll come back to it, but boy does The Morning Show like to go on tangents and forget its many, many, many side plots.
Oh man, there is an awful, awful scene where Martin Short plays an unnamed director, who talks with Mitch about what they’ve done, and how they can try and return respect to their names. And then Mitch reveals he knows the director is an “actual rapist,” and presumably decides not to make a documentary with him? It is so weird and distonal, and feels like The Morning Show presenting a weird moralistic litmus test to Mitch.