clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Maybe ‘The Morning Show’ Isn’t As Bad As We Thought It Was

Critical reception to Season 1 was lukewarm at best, but the Apple TV+ series hit its stride in the final few episodes. Season 2? That’s another story.

Apple Tv+/Ringer illustration

When The Morning Show premiered in the fall of 2019, the series was a lot like Reese Witherspoon’s character Bradley Jackson: a buzzy newcomer tasked with fronting a corporate giant in flux while only semi-qualified for the job. The marquee launch title of then-new streaming service Apple TV+, The Morning Show was a convenient shorthand for a Goliath spending its way to a late start in the Streaming Wars. The show was created by former political flak Jay Carson, inspired by a book from CNN host Brian Stelter, and headlined by Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carell; it was big on names but short on coherent vision, especially in its early episodes. The reception, apart from a well-deserved Emmy for supporting star Billy Crudup, was lukewarm at best—though it hardly mattered, since a second season was already guaranteed.

That new season arrives on Friday, nearly two years after the first. After slogging my way through the first half of The Morning Show’s freshman run, it took me most of those two years to catch up. (Only after reading a dishy history of The View earlier this year did I feel the need for more daytime TV drama.) In that time, Apple TV+ had grown into a more established presence with real hits like Ted Lasso that took pressure off The Morning Show to be anything other than itself. With my mind subsequently more open, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found: not a good show, exactly, but one with a clearer idea of what it was trying to do than its first few hours suggested, and an entertainingly messy—as opposed to drearily disorganized—way of trying to do it.

The Morning Show begins with the abrupt exile of Carell’s Mitch Kessler, the once-beloved anchor of the namesake Today-esque show who was outed as a serial predator. Mitch was obviously modeled after Matt Lauer, whose own fall from grace began just weeks after The Morning Show’s series order was announced in November 2017. The impression given was a show hastily reconceptualized on the fly, with a midproduction change in showrunners to match. Letting outside events dictate a plot is rarely a recipe for success, and sure enough, the first few parts of The Morning Show were frustratingly vague about Mitch’s supposed sins, let alone how we were meant to feel about him as a character.

Over time, though, The Morning Show zoomed out to become a longitudinal study of a toxic workplace, looking beyond Mitch to his various victims and enablers. That’s what makes Aniston’s Alex Levy, Mitch’s former friend and co-anchor of 15 years, a more compelling figure than Bradley, who is a generic idealist untouched by institutional blight. It’s also what makes the boardroom machinations of fictional network UBA a better source of conflict than the upheaval at a single show. The longer the season went on, the less it became about one man in favor of the ecosystem that supported him. A flashback episode showed the pre-scandal Morning Show as it actually was: not a cavalcade of horrors, but a well-oiled machine with collateral damage eclipsed by ratings. It’s easy to ignore warning signs of trouble ahead when the ride is still smooth.

The show’s most engaging gray area is Alex’s complicity. There’s the usual post-scandal line of inquiry: What did she know, and when did she know it? But there’s also a deeper unease about looking the other way, and whether Alex did so intentionally. Is simply not asking questions as bad as knowing the answers? Network president Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin) slowly emerges as something close to a Big Bad, buying off Mitch’s victims and letting the wounds fester into a full-blown infection. Still, The Morning Show harbors no illusions about his would-be successor. Crudup’s upstart executive doesn’t want to make up for Fred’s failures; he just wants his job. In a setup like that, how does anyone effect real change?

But just because The Morning Show explores these issues doesn’t mean it does so with subtlety or tact. The climax of Season 1, in which Bradley and Alex put aside their differences to hijack the airwaves and take Micklen down, is patently ludicrous; the suicide of a crew member Mitch once pressured into sex, a plot device that instigates the takeover, is melodramatic at best and manipulative at worst. But somewhere along the way, The Morning Show managed to point its chaos in the right direction, yelling and stomping its way to a decent use of star power.

In Season 2, The Morning Show is … more. More absurd, and sometimes more poignant; more ambitious, and also more unruly. An already overstuffed cast gets several high-profile additions, including Holland Taylor as the head of UBA’s board and Julianna Margulies as an ex-daytime anchor in the vein of Ellen DeGeneres. (Her character lost a job in the ’90s after being outed, not unlike Ellen’s erstwhile sitcom.) Witherspoon ditches the awful auburn wig and now chews scenery unencumbered. And with the exception of a misbegotten subplot that follows Mitch as he licks his wounds on Lake Como, The Morning Show turns from a couple of bad apples to the rot left in their wake.

Once again, Alex anchors—pun intended—the most interesting story line. We learn that she quit The Morning Show shortly after the events of the finale, which recast her as a kind of feminist folk hero. When the demands of the plot inevitably lure her back to set, Alex has to confront the gap between her rapturous reception and her own guilty conscience. She’s haunted by the imminent release of a behind-the-scenes book by muckraker Maggie Brener (Marcia Gay Harden), a tightly guarded exposé that becomes Alex’s personal telltale heart. Whatever’s in the actual text can’t be as bad as the demons that give us 10 consecutive hours of Jen Aniston freakouts.

Bradley, for her part, gets a character upgrade to match her cosmetic one. After a year holding down the fort with a new cohost (played by a convincingly blank Hasan Minhaj), she’s no longer a neophyte or innocent of The Morning Show’s many systemic flaws. A compromised Bradley is, on some fundamental level, a more engaging one—certainly more nuanced than the spitfire-crusader role she played in Season 1. This Bradley is insecure, egotistical, even diva-like; in Alex’s absence, she’s essentially become her former frenemy. And when Alex comes back, it enables the very clashes of the titans you expect of a show built around Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, who once tiptoed around each other in the name of female solidarity.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that The Morning Show Season 2 is even more haphazard in fleshing out these worthwhile conflicts than its predecessor. The episodes are crammed with unearned twists, out-of-character choices, and the doomed marriage of soap opera antics to serious quandaries like workplace abuse. Crudup, once the show’s blithe, amoral crown jewel, gets saddled with sincere emotions that blunt his puckish edge. (Though a running bit about his character betting the farm on a new streaming service called UBA+ is solid, if a real pot-kettle situation.) And as the season, set in early 2020, starts to head into the maw of the pandemic, its Newsroom-esque use of hindsight gets grating. “People need to see what’s coming,” a reporter argues before a trip to Wuhan. If Americans really talked like that last January, the rest of the year might have played out a bit differently.

The key to The Morning Show might be that these faults, however glaring, don’t detract from the bright spots. No, The Morning Show is not a sober dissection of an industry built on misogyny and exploitation. (For that, look to Kitty Green’s excellent film The Assistant.) Instead, it’s a goofy mess undergirded by relevant themes—just enough of them to keep you on board even when the show can’t keep itself from flying overboard. I won’t spoil some of the season’s most ridiculous moments, but when they inevitably came, I thought I’d roll my eyes. Instead, I practically cheered. There’s a thin line between bad and good-bad, but once a show crosses it, there’s nothing to do but go all in.