The Morning Show just can’t choose a side.
The flagship show of Apple TV Plus puts Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell front and center, with Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bel Powley, and Jack Davenport filling out (just some of) the rest of the main cast. In just the first three episodes, the workplace drama tackles the #MeToo movement, cancel culture, and how everyone who isn’t a cis white man has to struggle to be heard in the workplace.
But The Morning Show renders nearly every sharp observation irrelevant in the same breath. Maybe it’s an issue of the show having changed hands midway through — original showrunner Jay Carson (House of Cards) left due to creative differences, and was replaced by Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel) — but the show’s ideological wobbliness persists through its first three episodes.
Aniston plays Alex Levy, one of the two anchors of a Good Morning America analog called, you guessed it, “The Morning Show.” At the top of the premiere, her co-host, Mitch Kessler (Carell), has just been accused of sexual misconduct, and is promptly removed from the show as an investigation begins. Mitch’s absence leaves a power vacuum behind. Alex, blindsided by the news about Mitch, attempts to shore up her influence within the network; the swing anchors vie for Mitch’s vacant spot; and Cory Ellison (Crudup), the head of news, tries to find a new host while also trying to push Alex out.
Conservative cable station correspondent Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) becomes both a linchpin and a thorn in the side of all three. After a video of Jackson dressing down a gormless protester goes viral, she’s promptly shuttled to New York to be a guest on the show. But, of course, that’s not all.
The Morning Show is working with compelling material, but every move arrives with a safety net. For instance, Carell’s Mitch is a perpetrator, but his actions are left open-ended enough to set him up for a redemptive arc. He never sexually assaulted anyone, he protests throughout the show. He insists all of his affairs were consensual. “They liked it.”
It’s hard to know what to make of a scene in which Mitch commiserates with a director, played by Martin Short, who’s in a similar boat. At first, they both complain about the so-called court of public opinion, saying that things have gone too far and that they don’t deserve the exile they’ve been forced into. As they speak, Ehrin’s script makes it clear that Short’s character actually committed sexual assault. Mitch grows less enthusiastic about the conversation, suggesting that the different severity of their respective crimes merit different punishments.
That particular idea has been part of the conversation ever since the #MeToo movement began. Though it’s a big step for a major show to acknowledge sexual misconduct, The Morning Show never vindicates itself as a platform on which to litigate the argument of who should be “canceled,” and how. On top of that, trying to curry sympathy for Mitch doesn’t feel radical so much as it does misjudged, especially as he’s revealed, like his real-life counterpart Matt Lauer, to have a button under his desk that will automatically close and lock his dressing room door. As seen from real life, where Lauer continues to deny the rape allegations against him, The Morning Show’s softball treatment of Mitch leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
The positioning of Alex and Bradley as powerful women taking back their agency from the people (mostly white men) around them mostly rings false. There’s a striking nugget of truth in their struggle to get to know each other. Bradley protests that she doesn’t understand why Alex has seemingly abandoned her, while Alex is surprised to discover that she needed any guidance, and confesses that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, either. The character dynamics on the show feel real. The politics they’re forced to carry, however, feel half-baked.
As stand-ins for “liberal” and “conservative” ideology, Alex and Bradley are saddled with lines like, “I’m on the human side; that means I see both sides,” which perfectly encapsulate the show’s “all sides” hemming and hawing. And though Witherspoon in particular seems to be having fun playing to the rafters, it’s only Crudup who actually manages to make his character interesting. He’s the closest thing the show has to a villain, and as a result has the most solid ground to stand on, dropping bon mots (at one point he calls chaos “the new cocaine”) before disappearing from his scenes in a cloud of smoke.
The bad parts of The Morning Show outweigh the good. When it comes to the streaming wars, it’s a promising show only in that it can boast a list of creative talents that would impress anyone — Apple just hasn’t used them particularly well. Hopefully the show will improve in its later episodes (Apple ordered two seasons up front), but the viewpoint is so broad that it’ll take a miracle to give the show the focus it needs.
The Morning Show premieres on Apple TV Plus on Nov. 1.