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AppleTV+’s The Morning Show isn’t exactly an awful show. It’s a show with one of the best ensembles on TV, but at any given moment it seems to be wasting half that cast. It’s a show with things on its mind about the state of media, but no real ability to focus on any particular themes or ideas. It’s a spiffy, well-produced show and it’s absolutely, positively never quite boring, but I don’t remember the last series with this sort of potential that so reliably shot itself in the foot by valorizing the wrong characters, muddling the right ideas and approaching stories from the most cumbersome of angles.
The Morning Show isn’t awful, but it does awful things. The second season, through eight episodes — all 10 were sent to critics, but I ran out of either time or interest— hasn’t improved from an already inconsistent first season.
The best way to point to the show’s strange storytelling choices would be to start at the beginning, which is something the season cannot figure out how to do. We pick up in the immediate aftermath of Alex (Jennifer Aniston) and Bradley’s (Reese Witherspoon) takeover of UBA’s airwaves to out the network’s history of sexual misconduct and abuses of power after the death of Hanna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Then the story jumps forward to a drone shot zipping around pandemic-evacuated New York City in spring 2020 before flashing back to just before New Year’s Eve 2020, which was apparently eight months after the first scene.
Things happened between the first scene and New Year’s Eve, but that information can only be explained to us via uninspired exposition. So the short version is that Billy Crudup’s Cory was fired and then promoted. Alex left and went to write a memoir because she’s now a feminist icon — the world at large didn’t watch the first season — leaving Bradley co-hosting with Eric (Hasan Minhaj), who in only eight months has apparently made enough of an impression that he’s being given the nightly news slot. And now Cory wants Alex back, because he thinks this will goose ratings for The Morning Show (the UBA one, not the AppleTV+ one), which means that he’s somehow given the nightly news slot to a guy whose biggest credit was hosting a morning show with struggling ratings. None of this makes any sense, but try not to think too hard.
Alex doesn’t exactly want to come back. Beyond Cory, nobody exactly wants to have her back, because the absolute best interpretation of what she did last season was spend three weeks trying to stab various people in the back before taking credit for a feminist crusade against a network whose toxic culture she at best ignored. But she’s coming back, darn it!
The feeling within the show-within-a-show that Alex let people down and didn’t hear their voices is rich given that The Morning Show (the Apple TV+ one, not the UBA one) is better at marginalizing voices than it is at anything else. If those voices happen to belong nearly exclusively to the show’s characters of color, well that’s either an attempt to capture the failings of the real industry or poor focus. But it’s not the former, because The Morning Show really, really wanted us to feel the emotional impact of Hannah’s death, even though most of the season went along with the show forgetting completely that Hannah was supposed to be a character.
The Apple TV+ show forgot about Desean Terry’s Daniel, and then the character blamed the UBA producers for overlooking him because he’s Black and gay. The show rarely had an interest in making Nestor Carbonell’s Yanko into a living, breathing person, and this season wrote out Bel Powley’s Claire entirely, leaving Yanko with no emotional anchor at all. Karen Pittman’s Mia is constantly going around being irked that nobody is giving her the respect she deserves, but the series has no interest in giving her any characteristics beyond being irked that nobody looks at her as a fully rounded person. Janina Gavankar’s Alison sometimes shows up and says something sarcastic, which is not a character or a job title.
With several characters either dying or being pushed out last season, there was room for Daniel and Yanko and Mia and Alison to have more screen time this season, but if they do, the increase is so limited as to make it borderline irrelevant. We definitely get more time with Cory, and I don’t mind that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Billy Crudup is on a weirder, funnier and much better show than anybody else, and I love his strained smile and his cackling robot laughter and his just-off cadence of his line readings. To me, Cory is like Ted Lasso if Ted Lasso aspired to be a slick corporate stooge instead of an inspirational coach. His brittle, too-charming facade is going to shatter at some point, and Crudup is so great that I’m eager to see what the damaged man underneath the slicked-back hair and dimples is like. Still, this surely isn’t Cory’s story, and it could function in his absence.
There’s still time for Mitch! Yes, the Steve Carell character, who definitely isn’t modeled after Matt Lauer and should have been written out after the first episode, continues to suck up narrative space, and he does so ridiculously. I don’t know who thought the correct approach to Mitch this season would be to have him moping about his lost dignity and purpose and professional life … from a mansion in Lake Como (or a greenscreen backdrop of Lake Como). And let’s be perfectly clear: If you feel great sympathy for Mitch and are eagerly awaiting his onscreen humanizing for offscreen behavior, then chances are good that you simply like Mitch and this show more than I do. And you’ll think it’s awesome that this season situates Mitch in a strange rom-com with Valeria Golino and a big, slobbering dog. Every time I saw the Lake Como establishing shot, I wanted to hit fast-forward. The seventh episode, taking place entirely in “Lake Como,” was probably my breaking point with the season.
I’d add that the new season contains very strong new roles for Holland Taylor and Julianna Margulies. Taylor, who should be getting more early Emmy buzz around The Chair, is an impeccable repository of withering scorn as some member of the network’s board, while Margulies delivers her trademark intensity as a journalist sent to interview Alex and Bradley, but with a little of the lightness and humor that people might forget Margulies can handle.
There are too many people on this show, and without exactly being sure what the series’ point is, there’s no way for the writers to know who to focus on. But I just know it shouldn’t be the men. You have Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. At the very least give me a show about them, instead of Mark Duplass’ moping Chip.
Somehow I’ve complained this much without getting to the Newsroom of it all. The time-frame decision to place the season on the cusp of the pandemic and the presidential election could have created an opportunity for somber reflections on a difficult year. Instead, it’s a vehicle for extraordinarily smug dramatic irony: Characters make fun of the phrase “social distancing” and don’t take COVID seriously enough to want to cover it. Daniel is an exception, but just because he insists on covering the coronavirus doesn’t mean the show knows what to do with him and his foreknowledge.
My take on the first season of The Morning Show was basically that the show had great moving pieces and a limited sense of what to do with them. So if you liked that, get ready for more of the same.
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