The big-budget drama from Apple TV+, starring Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, is an intriguing, if imperfect, entry into the content wars.

By Kristen Baldwin
October 28, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Apple TV +
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  • TV Show
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Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) sits in a boardroom surrounded by men. The veteran TV anchor and host of The Morning Show is being called on the carpet by an angry network exec (Tom Irwin), who chastises her, loudly, for “insubordination” and other “embarrassing” behavior. As he yells, Alex mentally tunes him out, reducing his voice to a droning electrical hum. Finally, it’s her turn. “You’re not listening!” she snaps, slamming the polished wood table for emphasis. “I don’t need to justify anything. You all are so convinced that you are the rightful owner of all of the power that it doesn’t even occur to you that someone else could be in the driver’s seat.”

It’s a real “You go, girl!” moment (if people still said “You go, girl!”), and an exquisite showcase for Aniston, who channels Alex’s fury with gusto. It also typifies The Morning Show itself: The big-budget drama from Apple TV+ is a smart, showy, and sometimes strained drama about women and control, men and #MeToo, and the evaporating line between news and entertainment.

In the premiere, Alex arrives at the studio before sunrise to learn that her longtime cohost and friend, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), has just been fired due to a history of sexual misconduct. “My TV husband is a sexual predator now?” she asks, aghast at the revelation, and the fact that her producer Chip (Mark Duplass) knew Mitch was being investigated and didn’t tell her. Meanwhile Mitch, sequestered in his high-end suburban home, huddles with his team and rages against the sudden shift in social norms. “I didn’t rape anybody! I didn’t fire anybody!… You know what I did? I f—ed a couple of PAs and assistants. Big f—ing deal!” he bellows. “Since the dawn of time, men have used their power to attract women, and now, now let’s bust Mitch Kessler’s head over it?”

The Morning Show underwent its own overhaul in the fall of 2017, after men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer fell, and a tsunami of accountability rose in their wake. While Mitch’s slide into a #MeToo morass of his own making is part of what drives Morning Show, showrunner Kerry Ehrin (who replaced Jay Carson before shooting began) focuses the story on Alex, and the industry that views her as a commodity with an expiration date.

No one makes that more apparent than Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), the newly installed president of the network’s news division. A perma-smirk jerk who says things like “Chaos — it’s the new cocaine!” and “Nobody wants to watch a widow get f—ed,” Cory plans to stabilize The Morning Show’s slipping ratings by destabilizing Alex, whose contract is up for renegotiation. Naturally, he pulls a move from the Toxic Male Playbook: Pitting Alex against another woman, in this case an impassioned local reporter from West Virginia named Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), who recently rose to viral video prominence for screaming at an uninformed coal mine protester. This is where The Morning Show gets interesting. Alex and Bradley choose to exclude themselves from Cory’s narrative (to paraphrase another you-go-girl icon). Instead, they wage a counterattack, working separately to outmaneuver a common enemy — in this case, male-dominated management — rather than fighting each other for its approval.

It is a real delight to see Aniston, one of our greatest TV stars, back on the small screen. (Won’t most people be watching this on an iPhone? Discuss.) The actress gives a forceful performance, literally — she pounds tables, rage-slams her phone onto counters, and yanks out hair extensions with such violent contempt, you’d think they owe her money.

Carell, who’s spent his post-Office years adding morally complex characters to his resume, is exceptional as Mitch, whose emotions swing wildly from anger to grief to deep desperation. There is a stunning sequence in episode 3 when Mitch sits down for drinks with Dick Lundy (the superb Martin Short), an old director friend whose reputation has also been tarnished by misconduct allegations. As they commiserate over the unfairness of it all, how one accusation can erase a lifetime of work, Dick’s complaints become more bitter and vulgar; he scoffs at actresses who “cry rape,” and gloats about being “protected” by statutes of limitations. It is a shattering moment of realization for Mitch — how easily he overlooked others’ bad behavior, and how he’s destined to be lumped in, unfairly or not, with the Cosbys and the Weinsteins of the world forever. But The Morning Show isn’t asking us to sympathize with Mitch so much as understand his confusion over what he calls “the specificity of the #MeToo movement.”

And then there’s Bradley. Lord knows Witherspoon can do “hyper-articulate Southern firebrand” like none other, but after three episodes it’s not quite clear who her Bradley Jackson is supposed to be. We’re told repeatedly that she’s a “conservative,” but nothing she says or does suggests any party affiliation. So far, Bradley rants — entertainingly, effectively — about a variety of topics, from the “misogynistic world of journalism” to partisan politics to the lack of real news on the news. “You remember the truth? Journalism?” she bellows at her boss. “We’re newspeople, Jones!” (Woof… is anyone else experiencing a wave of The Newsroom-related PTSD?)

Fortunately, the show doesn’t overdo it on the “whither quality journalism?” stuff, perhaps because there are so many characters (played by so many good actors) with agendas to service: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Hannah, the dogged and scarily persuasive booker; Karen Pittman (The Americans), as producer Mia, who has a complicated history with Alex; Nestor Carbonell as the handsome but dense weatherman Yanko Flores; Desean Terry (Southland) as Daniel, a weekend anchor with his eye on Mitch’s chair. Even the small roles are filled with charismatic actors — Ian Gomez, Fred Melamed, Embeth Davidtz, Adina Porter, Shari Belafonte — and whoever cast Brett Butler as Bradley’s ornery, needy mom deserves a free year of iTunes downloads.

As the flagship series for Apple TV+ — which will reportedly spend $300 million on the first two seasons — The Morning Show is an intriguing, if imperfect, entry into the content wars. But I’ll keep watching. If we can all forgive the turgid early episodes of Succession — a prime-time soap about aggrieved rich white men — surely we can power through some growing pains for this ambitious drama about aggrieved women who are putting their anger to work. B

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Episode Recaps

Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon star in the Apple TV+ series that gives viewers an in-depth look at what goes on behind the scenes in the world of daybreak television.
type
  • TV Show
seasons
  • 1
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Premiere
  • 11/01/19
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