Creators: Jay Carson, Kerry Ehrin
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Billy Crudup, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell
Streaming on: Apple TV+
The Morning Show is what happens when The Newsroom goes to therapy. I enjoyed The Newsroom in the only manner Aaron Sorkin shows can be enjoyed – for its loud condescension towards the ordinary viewer. It was attractive in a haughty way, like that self-taught activist who thinks he/she is too smart to entertain you. The one jarring aspect, however, was the moral fortitude of every single reporter at the network. They were essentially good humans struggling to do a good job. Even the shady ones (like Don) turned good. The show was based on this job – the intellectual anatomy of American news, the politics, the coverage, the chemistry and the sociocultural misgivings. The characters were ideological surrogates.
But The Morning Show is about the people doing this job. It looks within; the work itself is incidental. Everyone might be vying for the prized position of moderating a presidential debate, but the debate itself is never shown. The employees of the network are complex, self-centered, egoistic, problematic, spiteful, silly, naive and, at times, human. None of them can be easily slotted. This is largely because The Morning Show confronts the challenge – head on, with mixed results – of being the first full-bodied examination of uncomfortable problems: of high-profile sexual misconduct, of official stances and Cancel Culture, of the complicity of power and privilege. It’s a difficult space. Nobody comes out with flying colours. Everyone and everything is in the grey zone, and nobody is faultless.
I find it interesting that the makers choose the topmost echelons of a television news network. News anchors are the definitive conveyors of information that citizens see day in and day out, as a result of which the reckoning is both private and public. Private, because we think we know these faces from the security of our living rooms, bedrooms and gym locker rooms – a misstep on their part feels like a peculiar betrayal of our trust in everyman celebrityhood. Public, because anchors are automatically perceived to be rational, pragmatic and responsible due to the visual nature of their job – a mistake by them feels more disorienting than one by, say, a print journalist or field reporter. Season 1 of The Morning Show was uneven but astute. It explored the MeToo moment behind closed doors of an unprepared media organization. Star TMS anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is outed as a predator, after which we see his on-air partner, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), navigate the aftershocks of his firing and the arrival of a young new co-host in Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). The template is fairly simplistic, in that it juxtaposes the flawed traditionalists like Alex and the UBS gatekeepers against the hot-headed idealism of Bradley. It ends on a high, with Alex – complicit as she is in the decay of her workspace – partnering with Bradley to call out the toxicity of their environment on live television. Much of the show’s criticism revolved around the crowd-pleasing crescendo of the season finale – with the sudden spur of feminism feeling too convenient at the end of a multifaceted narrative.
That was the easy part. The Morning Show Season 2 takes no shortcuts. It dives deep into the consequences of that “shake-up,” eight months after Alex’s on-air heroism. One senses a company with a very damaged soul. Bradley has a new co-host, Alex has chosen the wilderness, her producer Chip (Mark Duplass) has moved on, CEO Cory Ellison (an Emmy-winning Billy Crudup) is as eccentric and principled as ever, while a disgraced Mitch has disappeared from public view. The writers essentially admit that the climax of Season 1 was not the definitive resolution. It was a movie ending. I like the fact that Season 2 chooses to deal with the farcical calm after the storm. It makes no bones about how the characters are in an abusive relationship with their profession – with its contradictions and hypocrisies, blind spots, short-term memory and reactive rage. Another merit lies in how Alex is revealed as a reluctant feminist icon: a megalomaniac who must come to terms with her own fundamental lack of empathy. The second half of the season is fertile in how it explores this conflict of hers; she is still torn between who she really is and what the world expects her to be. I’ve rarely seen a more unreliable protagonist in a series full of unlikable voices. It’s brave of the makers to go with this image, in an age where stands are taken and spines shown in accordance with the goodwill they trigger. Even integrity is privatized.
As compelling as Jennifer Anniston’s performance as the embattled Alex Levy was in Season 1, the limitations of the veteran actress are on full display this time around
I also like that it slowly and steadily writes the Covid-19 pandemic – the UBS office is in midtown Manhattan – into the storyline. The first episode ends on New Year’s Eve 2019 (a stranger even sneezes in the last frame); the next nine episodes creep towards late March, with the virus going from backup dancer to lead antagonist by the finale. Italy, too, features heavily in this season, almost as though the series were designed to sync with the path of the virus. It’s a nice touch – staging the in-house drama against the transition into a post-Covid era – especially because it gives the makers an existential license to suggest that, eventually, nothing will matter. Eventually, everyone is in the same boat. But the drawback of this license is that it doesn’t make for an earned resolution; the ambiguity feels like a copout. It makes sense on paper, but in stark contrast to Season 1, Season 2 culminates in an anti-climax of sorts. It just doesn’t look right. Then again, nothing about the last 18 months is supposed to feel right.
The Morning Show gets the macro language right. Like the character arcs: Bradley’s personal life, Mitch’s penance, Chip’s Stockholm Syndrome, and the subplot about a tell-all book on its way. Like the politics: the design asks us to listen to its people, no matter how culpable or guilty they are, without jumping to snap judgments. But the show gets campy with the little things, with the in-betweens that connect the highs. For instance, early on, Alex makes an important life decision after a scene with a…psychic. Later, we see an investigative journalist painted as the ‘villain’ by virtue of UBS being the underdogs intent on cleaning up its act. The message – that people change – is frail and questionable, reiterating the kind of all-American tone-deafness that defined The Newsroom. The conversations, too, are oddly Sorkin-ish and breathless, especially with the arrival of the swanky new poker-faced President of the division. The tiny skirmishes with PC culture, racial and social media wokeness feel superficial – like a sub-thread of an employee hauled through the coals for the use of the term “spirit animal” on air. There is one fascinating exchange, in which a primary character refuses to play the sexual identity card to advance her career. But again, there’s so much happening across the board that it’s hard to embrace the continuity of social nuance. It is however never lost on us how most organizations are susceptible to Twitter outrage and trends; the moral core of the people who run it, too, are shaped by these instantaneous reactions.
Most of all, though, we need to speak about Jennifer Aniston. As compelling as her performance as the embattled Alex Levy was in Season 1, the limitations of the veteran actress are on full display this time around. Her character is etched out so broadly that it’s hard not to get irritated with the perpetual slant of Aniston’s on-the-verge-of-meltdown body language. There’s not a scene where she isn’t tearing up, breathing hard, both or looking faint. There’s not a reaction that isn’t a combination of these patented emotions. It’s a stubbornly simplistic and repetitive rendering of a two-faced but self-aware ‘diva,’ made even more surreal with glimpses of rom-com Rachel in the more vulnerable moments. The rest of the cast is resolute – especially Carell’s clever Carell-like depiction of a remorseful man we are conditioned to view as an all-out monster.
I suppose that’s the enduring strength and weakness of The Morning Show. It’s even more amplified in Season 2, where we see individual scenes playing to the gallery in a screenplay that does anything but. It’s like watching a square attempting to fit into a circle-shaped hole. The struggle is hypnotic to see, but it’s tough to not be unsettled by the tonal flights of fancy in a show that is learning how to afford its own currency. We don’t feel the fatigue of ten long episodes, yet there’s certainly a sense of the first-mover syndrome. It’s uncharted territory, and the makers seem to be feeling their way through the dark, unsure of whether to use a battery-operated torch or a hot matchstick. I’ll still admit that The Morning Show, for all its faults, is a reflexive capsule of our time. The smug self-importance is organic to what it sets out to achieve. After all, much like its titular show, it never promised to be a primetime broadcast. It’s about waking up to the truth rather than sleeping on it.