'The Morning Show': TV Review

'Broadcast Snooze' (but there's potential).
11/1/2019

Apple TV+ makes a star-studded original drama debut with Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston playing news anchor rivals, but the series struggles out of the gate.

If you know where to look, nearly every TV show or movie has seams. A moment of hastily rendered CG. A line of ADR dialogue meant to smooth over a plot hole. A mismatched bit of lighting from a reshoot. The trick is to be so swept up that you don't notice the seams.

For at least its first two episodes, The Morning Show, the most star-studded and vaunted offering from the initial offering of Apple TV+ originals, is perhaps the seam-iest drama you'll ever see. One needn't know the show's bumpy creative history — rare separate "created by" (Jay Carson) and "developed by" (eventual showrunner Kerry Ehrin) credits give some indication — to be aware of the series struggling and floundering to find its focus, tone and attitude toward its main characters.

After a brutally dull pilot and a meandering second episode, there are distinct hints in the third hour of a more satisfying and confident The Morning Show, one that actually gets value out of leading ladies Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. But did the behemoths at Apple really get into the crowded original TV marketplace to become the latest perpetrator of "It eventually gets better!" patience-testing?

Aniston plays Alex, longtime host of, yes, The Morning Show, a daytime TV institution finally showing its age, ratings-wise. The show is hit with an unexpected scandal when Alex's venerable co-host Mitch (Steve Carell) is forced to resign amid accusations of sexual impropriety. The network's up-and-coming news head (Billy Crudup) spots an opportunity to rejuvenate The Morning Show and possibly even squeeze Alex out as well, but Alex isn't about to go down without a fight.

As this is happening, Bradley (Witherspoon), a reporter with a checkered past now in a last-gasp job as a correspondent on a conservative cable station, becomes an instant online sensation after a fiery incident at a coal mine protest. Is Bradley's unpredictable attitude exactly what The Morning Show needs at this precarious moment?

The pilot is an ungainly mishmash. There are the bland and conventional behind-the-scenes elements pointing to Brian Stelter's Top of the Morning as a background source. That book came out before the original round of #MeToo accusations ended Matt Lauer's career on Today, a real-life scandal that The Morning Show borrows from in specific enough detail that the series now feels quaint after the graphic and disturbing accusations in Ronan Farrow's new book.

The Mitch storyline basically subsumes the more casual making-of-a-show aspects, which in turn are left feeling like Sports Night or The Newsroom without the snappy dialogue or perspective on why daytime TV is interesting or unique. Things aren't helped by the textureless polish and derivative walk-and-talks delivered by director Mimi Leder, basically doing a stylistic impression of Mimi Leder.

The Mitch stuff, rendered toothless by reality, is hard to buy, and Alex's reaction, cribbed liberally from The Good Wife, is a bore. The incident that makes Bradley famous is ridiculous and implausible. And as fine as Aniston and Witherspoon initially are, all indications point to The Morning Show setting up some sort of All About Eve cat-fighting so hoary it makes one yearn for more time with supporting players like Gugu Mbatha-Raw as head booker Hannah, Bel Powley as social media manager Claire or, especially, Desean K. Terry as the overqualified reporter who believes he's earned the co-anchor seat.

The Morning Show begins to find its footing in the second episode, tied to growing recognition that most of its male characters are just bad people, whether by intent or apathy. The series tries to have it both ways with Mitch, treating him as despicable while pairing him with even worse characters — Martin Short plays a Woody Allen-esque director — and leveraging Carell's inherent likability to the point where many viewers will probably find him too sympathetic. Still, this positions "the patriarchy" as the series' key adversary and allows a shift from the all-too-predictable woman-on-woman power skirmish. There's a possibility that The Morning Show always wanted to fake viewers out by leaning first into this tired trope. But the fake-out could have been better achieved by collapsing the first two episodes into a single hour. And making it better.

The third episode then steers into the desired soapy goodness and gives both Aniston and Witherspoon the sort of juicy monologues you sense attracted the two stars. That said, even the third episode remains sparing in how frequently it brings them together — and they're mostly exceptional as individuals when what audiences will surely be wanting is to see them being exceptional together.

Aniston nails the strained composure of a woman who has long been overlooked and underestimated and has finally decided to take control. You can sense Witherspoon's giddiness at — nearly two decades after Elle Woods — playing a character who proudly touts her lack of positivity and declares "I'm not a perky person!" and means it. The characters they're playing in this episode bear minimal resemblance to their initial introductions, but there's catharsis in the long stretches of shackle-breaking dialogue that sound like things these marquee star-producers have either said or wished they'd said to condescending male authority figures over the years.

Playing the series' primary authority figure, Crudup delivers a performance of expert reptilian charisma. The Morning Show is more comfortable in black-and-white than shades of gray, but Crudup's Cory is the one male figure I found gross, but interestingly gross. Or maybe Cory just gets off on the power games and, in Alex and Bradley, he finally has worthy sparring partners.

The third episode points to a series in which Aniston, Witherspoon and Crudup could make this backdrop fun to watch. But for what is allegedly one of the most expensive shows in TV history, and for what is certainly a pivotal show in the burgeoning Streaming Wars, one out of three isn't good enough for a recommendation yet.

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Bel Powley, Jack Davenport, Karen Pittman
Created by: Jay Carson
Developed by/showrunner: Kerry Ehrin
Premieres: Friday (Apple TV+)