[Note: Only the first three episodes have been made available before the series premiere.]
It’s clear that The Today Show‘s Matt Lauer debacle that saw the veteran news anchor canceled by both the show and America after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct/assault is an inciting catalyst for The Morning Show, but the new series has a lot more on its plate than a mere recapping of real-life Me Too events and revelations. While the other new shows premiering on Apple tv+ over the next few weeks appear to feature more traditionally compelling setups involving genre plots (See, Servant) and historical twists (Dickinson, For All Mankind), this dramatic, affecting, and frequently funny riff on women in the media is a spot-on commentary about the world we actually — and currently — live in.
A phone call at 3:30 in the morning rarely brings good news, and it’s no exception to the rule here as the team behind ‘The Morning Show’ has a bombshell dropped on them. Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), one half of the show’s dynamic and beloved co-hosting team, has been fired after news leaks about several accusations against him involving sexual misconduct. Remaining host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) struggles with the revelation and its fallout, but it’s far from her only battle. The show’s ratings have struggled recently against a competitor, and the network executives, including newly minted head of the news division Corey Ellison (Billy Crudup), see this as an opportunity to drop Alex too and start fresh with younger, more exciting talents.
The shakeup coincides with a viral video from Virginia showing field reporter Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) delivering a verbal beat-down to an aggressive protester. She’s brought on as a guest, but after an abrasive on-air interview between Alex and Bradley catches Corey’s attention the exec makes an effort to keep her around in the hope that it will unsettle the veteran anchor out of her complacency and her seat. A few back and forth mind games later, and Bradley is named new co-host of ‘The Morning Show.’
And no one, including Bradley herself, is happy about it.
Apple tv+’s The Morning Show is, in its early episodes at least, an immensely entertaining and bitingly smart look at the state of news media in a world of “fake news,” male journalists caught up in lies and bad behavior, and the constant push towards increasing ratings over delivering important, hard-hitting news. That’s already a lot to cover, especially when it’s tackled with this much wit, humor, and integrity, but series creator Jay Carson adds more with a focus on the struggles unique to female journalists, the arguments surrounding the complexity of the Me Too movement, and more. Numerous threads are juggled beautifully and brilliantly, and the show’s energy and style encourage easy comparisons to shows like The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Newsroom (2012-2014) in its approach to topics, its deference to taking the intelligent path over the easy one, and a propensity for conversations had while walking. It’s far too early to compare shows on a qualitative scale, but while those two lean heavily to the Left in their ideologies The Morning Show succeeds without ever feeling preachy in its commentary.
The writing (from Carson, Kerry Ehrin, and Erica Lipez) and direction (Mimi Leder directs the first two episodes while David Frankel takes the third) are incredibly sharp and spirited, but as with the media itself — for both better and worse — it’s the public-facing faces that hold the most immediate power, and to that end the cast is absolute aces across the board. Aniston is terrific as a successful, powerful woman who still feels at risk in a man’s world, and she succeeds both dramatically and comedically in her fight against it. You believe her abilities and intentions, but you also buy in during moments where she snaps with incisive, angry barbs and rants. She’s known best for comedy, and while her skills there remain sharp it’s great seeing her walk this unstable line between sympathetic fear and a rage that risks hurting her likability.
Carell is equally well cast, again somewhat against type, as a charming, egotistical asshole. His career has mostly trained viewers to laugh with him or care about him, but here we’re tasked with despising him. Credit the writing and his performance then, because he still leaves you laughing and caring. One scene sees him abandoned by everyone around him, and we watch as Mitch struggles to make his own coffee, but what could have been played broadly instead manages to be both funny and sad. Mitch is still a dick, though, and watching his proclamations about his innocence and how this is all Harvey Weinstein’s fault are electrifying. He takes the conversation in interesting directions, and we see him learning along the way, but just wait for the beat where he ends an argument with “At first they came for the rapists, and I did not speak up…”
Witherspoon’s feisty, die-hard Bradley, meanwhile, is the audience’s guide offering raw reactions and takeaways from the madness surrounding her. She refuses a Left or Right label and instead approaches issues from a “human” angle allowing her to see both sides and go from there, and while it doesn’t necessarily feel realistic it serves a purpose as a moral center of sorts. The trick will be continuing to find the right balance while avoiding the pitfall of making her audience surrogacy a hindrance to growing as an actual character. Witherspoon is at her punchy best as a woman held back in her career by an unforgiving attitude, and while her journey across these first few episodes sees some grand changes in her life the question becomes how she’ll handle it and where she’ll go from there. There are some narrative threads regarding her life back home that don’t quite land, at least not yet, but ideally they’ll fade away or find their strength.
The supporting cast is every bit as strong — Mindy Kaling cameo aside — with the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bel Powley, Nestor Carbonell, and Brett Butler starring in recurring roles. Martin Short makes a brief but intense appearance as a Woody Allen-like filmmaker sharing an increasingly uncomfortable conversation with Mitch, and Mark Duplass‘ turn as the show’s executive producer is a masterclass in comedic timing and expression. His hallway walk on the receiving end of a Witherspoon rant is priceless.
In a sea of bright lights, though, it’s Crudup’s TV executive who steals every scene he’s in with dialogue, delivery, and a performance that reminds yet again of his brilliance. Corey ran the network’s entertainment division before being given the news division too, and with echoes of James L. Brooks’ masterpiece Broadcast News (1987) hanging heavy in the air his plan of attack is to shape the news into entertainment so that a depressed America can find escape from the drudgery of the real world. His observations on Alex are as exquisitely cruel as they are darkly hilarious — “Watching a beloved woman’s breakdown is timeless American entertainment,” he says at one point, shocking even the network’s president — and Crudup seals it all with a malicious sincerity.
The Morning Show doesn’t quite feel like it’s pushing a strict agenda and instead delivers consistent entertainment, but it does a fascinating job of offering views balanced by truthful observations. The risk will be seeing if it can maintain both the electricity and the energy without running certain stories into the ground, but as mentioned the cast is capable of doing a lot of the heavy lifting. There’s a “both sides” aspect at play in what it presents, but while the show doesn’t make a judgement call it provides enough information for viewers to make their own. Going forward, it will need to find a firmer, steadier path if it wants to avoid complaints that it’s merely throwing its politics against the wall to see what sticks, but this is a highly promising start. There’s a right answer to most of its big questions, obviously, but the show is at its best when it chips away at the far more difficult ones and actually engages in an ongoing conversation. Maybe some day we’ll be able to rely on the real world news shows to follow suit.
The first three episodes of The Morning Show premiere on Apple tv+ starting November 1st with the first season’s remaining episodes arriving weekly.