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‘The Morning Show’ Has Everything but Feels Like Nothing

Ever wonder what would happen if Siri made a TV show?

Apple/Ringer illustration

There is yelling on The Morning Show. So much yelling! Veteran anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) yells at her longtime partner Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), whose outing as a workplace predator she takes less as a moral offense than a personal betrayal. Mitch yells at—and smashes—his TV when he sees Alex talking to their audience like he’s dead. Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a reporter for a Sinclair-type local news station in West Virginia, yells at a coal mine protester who’s assaulted her cameraman and goes viral, putting her on a collision course with the titular broadcast.

There are also speeches on The Morning Show. So many speeches! Alex makes a speech to her viewers about consequences, and another to Mitch about their relationship, and another to Bradley about professional partnerships. Mitch makes a speech about how #MeToo has gone too far. Bradley makes a speech about partisanship, trust, and journalism in which the overall message lands somewhere around “truth is good.”

What there is not, on The Morning Show, is much to tie these scenery feasts together or creatively—if not financially—justify its unprecedented cluster of talent. The Morning Show was the first of Apple’s marquee projects to be announced in the windup to its new TV+ streaming service, and it’s easy to see why Tim Cook and company would view the project as an ideal beachhead in the ever-escalating war for eyeballs. Witherspoon is building on the star-producer streak she perfected with Big Little Lies, the obvious precedent for both The Morning Show and an entire wave of celebrity-anchored series. Aniston is making a splash in her first regular-series role since Friends, a potential demotion eased by both TV’s cultural ascendance and a reported $20 million paycheck. Carell provides both comic bona fides and just the right level of celebrity: enough to further The Morning Show’s aura of star power, but not enough to erode the impression that this is Aniston and Witherspoon’s show. (Almost literally—The Morning Show is technically created by ex-politico Jay Carson and run by Kerry Ehrin, but the mid-production switch makes the two leads its most consistent creative forces.)

Even the lower rungs of The Morning Show’s call sheet are filled with recognizable names. Half of the episodes were directed by Mimi Leder (also an executive producer), an acclaimed filmmaker who’s found a second life through prestige series like The Leftovers; the music is by frequent Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell, in his first TV project since 2014’s Olive Kitteridge. The Morning Show may also boast the single most overqualified supporting cast on television: Alex and Mitch’s put-upon EP is played by Mark Duplass, taking time out of his busy schedule to serve as an on-screen punching bag for uber-actresses in a feat of male allyship; an oleaginous Billy Crudup is the new head of The Morning Show’s fictional network, seizing on Mitch’s absence as an opportunity to infuse new blood—and maybe flush out some old; Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“San Junipero,” Beyond the Lights) and Bel Powley (Diary of a Teenage Girl) are The Morning Show’s booker and PA, a shunting of players who could plausibly lead their own shows down to fifth or sixth billing. No less a luminary than Martin Short pops in for a novelty guest appearance.

The Morning Show arranges these sterling components into a fairly standard design. There is a host of easy pop cultural parallels to The Morning Show’s plot and setting, and all of them ring at least partially true. Alex is an older woman threatened by the rise of a younger ingenue, just like All About Eve. The show is a behind-the-scenes story driven by the fast-paced rhythms of live TV, just like The Newsroom. (There are even walk-and-talks, lest you miss the Sorkin influence.) Even the morning show setup, technically borrowed from Brian Stelter’s 2013 dish-fest Top of the Morning, recalls the 2010 Rachel McAdams film Morning Glory. And if you can watch a tough-talking reporter with a Southern accent lose her shit on camera and not think of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, that means you haven’t seen Broadcast News.

Predictability is not inherently a vice. Movie stars plugged into ready-made templates powered the entire film industry for decades, before those templates were called “IP” and became the star of the show themselves. Indeed, one gets the distinct feeling that, were The Morning Show made just 10 or 15 years ago, it would have been a feature, down to the exact same cast. Part of the reason figures like Aniston and Witherspoon have migrated to the small screen (or in this case, an even smaller screen—shout-out the iPhone 11) in recent years is that the parts they once specialized in have been all but squeezed out of the movies. Why not recreate the magic of charming people refracting each other’s charisma on TV?

In practice, however, beats that are pleasingly repetitive at 90 minutes start to wear out their welcome over 10 episodes. Bradley’s plucky spark isn’t anywhere near as winning as the script seems to think it is; a monologue about how much she sticks out in the news business—she swore on air! Twice!—is essentially an unironic reprise of Jughead’s “I’m a weirdo” speech from Riverdale. Aniston is doing her best to invigorate a tired arc, but one can only watch a woman over 40 scrutinize her face in the mirror so many times before the point about unfair beauty standards gets made. And while the three episodes screened in advance are too early to tell exactly where the show is going with Mitch’s fall from grace, the broad writing and confusing tone don’t inspire confidence. Mitch is clearly modeled after Matt Lauer, but more recent allegations make those ties a better fit for a grim drama than what this is: a show in which Steve Carell struggles to use a Keurig while quirky music plays in the background.

Nor does The Morning Show enable the sort of performances that can serve as such transparent vehicles’ silver lining. Mitch is too hazy of a character for Carell to have much to dig into; is he supposed to be a fool facing an overdue comeuppance, or a sympathetic cad who can earn redemption through accountability? After doing some career-best work as the tightly miserable Madeline Mackenzie, Witherspoon feels oddly rote as yet another Southern firebrand, down to the lazy symbolism of going brunette for the role of upstart underdog. (The wigs, plural, don’t help either.) Aniston has by far the most interesting, and more-than-slightly meta, role as a woman navigating the upper echelons of entertainment, both objectively powerful and frustratingly powerless. It’s good stuff, but it’s not enough to prop up 10 hours of push-and-pull between frenemies. The Morning Show more than earns comparisons to Big Little Lies—but to the directionless second season, not the original.

Mostly, The Morning Show seems at a loss as to where to direct the supernova of energy at its disposal. Its thoughts about journalism amount to platitudes from Bradley about “the truth” and being on “the human side,” never quite sharpening them into a critique of morning shows’ froth. (Despite the fact that she comes from a conservative outlet, Bradley’s ideology remains strangely ambiguous, apart from the fact she’s a big fan of carbon capture.) The show’s thoughts about a cultural reckoning with sexual misconduct amount to a few scattered buzzwords, an inciting incident, and a joke about the expression “me too.” Its thoughts about women in the workplace amount to how fun it is to watch Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon snipe at, and occasionally support, one another. Which, fair—but all of Apple’s Hollywood dreams might be too much weight for even these two to bear.