Television

Why Can’t ‘The Morning Show’ Embrace the Mess?

The Apple TV+ series is wasting everyone's time trying to be boilerplate prestige TV, when it really wants to be a high-camp soap.

*Warning: spoilers for season 2 of The Morning Show ahead*

The Morning Show needs to stop the charade.

Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell in The Morning Show (courtesy: Apple TV+)

The Apple TV+ series billed itself as prestige TV, an intense exploration of morning TV’s cutthroat and toxic environment, boasting high production values and a cast including Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell. Initial reviews of its first episodes were mixed, but they didn’t account for what the show started to excel in later on: campy, messy melodrama. The Morning Show was a show where you could bask in the cringe of tightly wound anchor Alex Levy singing a duet of Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” with her boss Cory Ellison. (Billy Crudup, playing Cory, is one of the few people who understood the assignment and won an Emmy for his trouble). It was ridiculous, and ridiculously fun to watch, at times. Unfortunately, The Morning Show aspired to be a self-serious drama with a sexual assault storyline it couldn’t properly figure out, leading to shoddy character work and toothless observations about workplace toxicity.

The first season finale’s last moments seemed like a course correction. Horrified by the suicide by head talent booker Hannah Shoenfeld (a grossly underused Gugu Mbathu-Raw), who Mitch Kessler (Carell) sexually assaulted, Alex has a meltdown live on-air. During that meltdown, she and her co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) expose their network UBA’s complicity in silencing sexual harassment and assault victims. It was a jaw-dropping moment, one that powerfully and gleefully ripped the show’s status quo to shreds. It certainly didn’t resemble the show’s first episode, which was most memorable for the number of times the word “fuck” was said.

Greta Lee and Karen Pittman in The Morning Show (courtesy: Apple TV+)

Sadly, The Morning Show‘s second season hasn’t fully tapped into that chaotic energy, bogging itself down with a strict adherence to real world events. The coronavirus pandemic rears its ugly head, and like most of television, the show doesn’t translate it into compelling drama. Even worse, it uses the pandemic as an excuse to bring back Mitch, a relic of a unsatisfying storyline that held the show back from its wackier impulses. The Morning Show, not realizing it doesn’t have the range for complex topics, is also tackling “cancel culture” by way of weatherman Yanko Flores (Nestor Carbonell), who uses the term “spirit animal” on-air and complains when people on social media criticize him and production orders him to apologize. So far, it’s a shallow storyline that basically sides with Yanko’s lack of empathy and self-awareness, putting him up against two women of color who are framed as trying to bring him down.

Reese Witherspoon and Julianna Margulies in The Morning Show (courtesy: Apple TV+)

The Morning Show’s inability to escape its first season’s worst traits is weighing down what could be a sophomore breakout, like its closest relative Succession. Cory Ellison, the spirited architect of the show’s best mess, is a shell of his former self, despite now running the whole network. He’s mired in both the Hannah lawsuit and unrequited feelings for Bradley, which apparently developed off-season. Speaking of, Bradley is as unmoored as ever. She’s dating UBA primetime journalist Laura Peterson (a very welcome Julianna Margulies), and the exploration of her sexuality and its impact on her career could be compelling, but the writers can’t decide on what she wants, of anything or anyone. It’s irritating because, when the show does understand its characters’ motivations, it leads to absurdist gold, like Daniel (Desean Terry) embarrassing himself singing Neil Diamond’s “America” to prove he’s charismatic enough to moderate the presidential debate.

As for Alex, she is the one character who is actually leaning into the mayhem bubbling under the surface. After hiding out in Maine to write a book, she returns to the show at Cory’s behest, promising a primetime gig. However, the pressure of being the “feminist icon” who blew up UBA, the disdain from the crew, and the imminent release of Maggie Brenner’s (Marcia Gay Harden) tell-all book causes the daytime diva to spiral. The fourth episode ends with Alex, suffering from stress-induced back spasms, confronting Maggie the night before the debate and demanding to know the book’s contents, specifically whether it mentions her affair with Mitch. That scene is The Morning Show at its most unhinged, the kind of hot mess that drives social media conversations and Apple TV+ subscriptions (or so Apple hopes). It’s what the show desperately needs.

Jennifer Aniston, Billy Crudup, and Reese Witherspoon in The Morning Show (courtesy: Apple TV+)

The Morning Show wants to be The Queen’s Gambit but is more like a modern, East Coast Dynasty (the original, not The CW remake). Prestige is all well and good, but Jennifer Aniston going full-on Alexis Carrington would be much more fun. The Morning Show doesn’t need to stage catfights in lily ponds, but it is missing the opportunity to embrace its messier impulses and be the kind of escapist television that is en vogue right now. Otherwise, it’s just another mid-tier drama series, and doesn’t everyone deserve better than that?

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