On “The Morning Show,” the highest-profile of the new series Apple is using to launch its streaming service, Reese Witherspoon’s character, Bradley Jackson, has a political philosophy even unlikelier than her name. A field reporter for a regional superstation whose lean, we’re told, lies somewhere between the Sinclair organization and David Duke, Jackson herself is studiously not conservative like her bosses, though she’s no liberal. She’s not neutral, as some reporters try to be, or even centrist. She believes, instead, in everything. “I’m on the human side,” she says. “That means I see both sides.”
This humanism expresses itself first at an anti-coal rally she’s covering, where, when a counterprotestor knocks down her cameraman, she launches into a broadside about the dangers of coal that suddenly twists into a broadside about the dangers of both sides of politics for no clear reason. There is a breathtaking, incoherent moment between Bradley’s description of the hazardous byproduct of coal ash and her declaration that “It is just a big wheel that goes around. Liberals add sanctions, conservatives remove those sanctions, and they just keep fighting. Because all they want to do is hear themselves talk. And they all want to be right. And they all want to win.” She concludes: ”And there’s a human cost! And it’s exhausting!”
In the world of “The Morning Show,” this clip — caught on camera without Bradley’s knowledge — goes viral and sets into motion a string of events that rapidly culminates in her hiring as the cohost of a “Today”-style talk show. Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy, an anchor standing in the way of her producer’s (Billy Crudup) dream of a total show revamp, sees in Bradley a pliable, naive ally, one whose star power serves Alex better by her side than as her replacement. Bradley can be Alex’s Howard Beale, a ratings-booster propped up by an institution that doesn’t care much about her well-being.
But this cynicism isn’t consistently enough the show’s approach to make much sense — not that much else of the show’s output does. Taking on a number of provocative topics, including and especially gender issues emanating from the toxic swamp of the breakfast-hour television industry, “The Morning Show” is perpetually on the human side, punting on the questions it itself puts forward in favor of airily treating them as too complicated. It’s early days for the show, whose first three episodes were provided to critics. But it’s hard to imagine that viewers excited by a series that promises to take on so much being satisfied by the exhaustion that bleeds out of the writers’ room onto the screen. The show gives up on its potential before it’s really underway, substituting career machinations for something more nourishing.
Steve Carell shoulders a great deal of the burden, playing a figure who’s less character than idea: What if a “Bad Man” were a good guy? His Mitch Kessler has at the series’s opening just been fired from his position as a star of “The Morning Show,” this drama’s titular “Today”-style TV landmark, following misconduct allegations. Mitch insists, throughout, that he has done nothing wrong but engage in consensual workplace affairs; the show seems, if not to agree, than to be engaging the question to a degree that seems less purposeful than confused. There are fuzzy gestures towards other office romances that did not result in firings and a scene in which Alex grants her former co-anchor her sympathy, if not her absolution. “We lived a life,” she tells him in a clandestine meeting after their workplace relationship ends, “that we’re never going to get back. And now you can’t be my friend.”
The losses of relationships between those who abuse power and those who were blind to said abuse are real, and deserve to be mourned; Jennifer Aniston, of “Friends,” telling someone that she is no longer their friend trades on her image and cultural power in an obvious way to earn our sympathies. But because the show takes so much more seriously Alex’s grievance than it does the key woman alleging misdeeds, there’s a lack of balance here. The primary consequence of whatever it is Mitch did is to strand Alex without a key ally at work and to make likelier her own firing; for our protagonist, things were a lot simpler when Mitch was around, a fact that this show, with its shark-like forward momentum propelling us toward the collision between Alex and Bradley, has little time to contemplate beyond putting it forward as bald fact.
The only person putting serious thought into the unfortunate reality of Mitch is, well, Mitch, who, living in oblivion, grows only surer of his own maltreatment. He presses a former colleague (Mark Duplass) who concedes that the #MeToo movement is an “overcorrection”; not content with this rhetorical victory, Mitch asks that if he is cancelled, “What are you going to do when they come for the ordinary everyday run of the mill creep like you, Chip? Who’s going to be left to speak up for you?” This glimmering proposal of a men’s rights activist movement — solidarity of the creeps — is an interesting and compelling depiction of a manipulator crashing past common sense, but Carell and the show won’t let Mitch be truly wrong. Later, meeting with a famous director (Martin Short) to strategize how to make their voices clear, Mitch comes to a realization. “You are actually a predator,” he says. And Mitch, by contrast, is just confused.
Certitude isn’t what viewers are looking for here: Real-life Mitches get canceled so thoroughly that fiction needn’t replicate the experience entirely. But there’s a self-satisfaction to the way this show plays thought experiments, a smug lack of risk to its fiddling with a story that’s actually fairly tidy. (Mitch’s family simply exits the story so as not to represent a loose thread; the woman lodging allegations against him is a glancing presence.) What this show is really asking, with its posturing about contemporary mores treated as such, is: What if two women were rivals? The Alex-Bradley storyline, placing two of their generation’s most consequential stars together, is a confounding missed opportunity, placing both of them in roles that don’t quite suit — the breezy, California-casual Aniston as a careerist Manhattan shark, the sharp and shrewd Witherspoon as a confused naif — and then pitting them against each other.
This is especially a comedown for Witherspoon, whose previous TV effort, “Big Little Lies,” was both a match for her energy and intellect and, from its first season’s earliest moments, a genuinely sharp investigation of what collaboration between women can unleash.Three episodes in, the women of “The Morning Show” are islands even as co-anchors, and for no reason more compelling than that the plot has said so. Alex feints towards treating Bradley’s rant as cynical and self-centered, positioning the reporter at the center of the reporting, but Alex’s massive celebrity makes her the story wherever she goes. (We never see her and Mitch’s much-vaunted past chemistry for more than a very brief flashback, and never hear what she likes about newsgathering or what it is about her that fans like about her. Our best guess is that they like her because she’s like Jennifer Aniston, which is not enough for us to root for her through her vision to avenge herself and her show.) And if Bradley’s politics are unsatisfyingly un-thought-through, Alex’s seem nonexistent, as is her vision for what the news is or should be.
All of which feels like a massive missed opportunity as a way of conveying the world of morning shows, a milieu whose image has been shattered in the past several years. From the 2017 firings of Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose for sexual misconduct to the recent reporting by former NBC News correspondent Ronan Farrow about the efforts to protect “Today” anchor Lauer, these workplaces — rife as they are, given their status as lucrative network flagships, with the most competitive and most entitled individuals in TV news — for years upheld the image of sunny families. Indeed, that traditional setup of a male and female anchor sharing warm laughs between headlines may less have been a fig-leaf over the corruption at the heart of things than the root of it. There’s something fundamentally eerie about the intimacy between the viewer, waking up, and the surrogate family, who’ve been awake for hours, planning the show.
This, finally, is the missing insight that’s most galling. “The Morning Show” may be moving toward a place where Mitch is something other than uninterestingly aggrieved, and it may complicate the so-far static frenemyship of Alex and Bradley. It may even make Bradley’s politics make sense, even if her career background is a lost cause. But it’s so far completely sacrificed the opportunity to treat the morning show how the public has come to understand it: As a place fundamentally unlike even other media workplaces for reasons beyond the fact that its stars keep weird hours. Mitch misses “The Morning Show” because it represents his old life; Alex wants to keep it because it’s her job; Bradley feels ambivalent about her engagement with it because she just doesn’t care. The show may be taking her further away from her dream of telling human stories, and its various personalities seem to her, at times, not worth tangling with. It’s an insight she ought to have trusted!
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Apple, a bleeding-edge tech company whose streaming service represents TV’s vanguard, had so little sensibility for what morning TV means to its viewers or its practitioners. But it’s very odd that this company devoted to excellence, given a situation with so many potential points of entry, seems to have settled for so much less than it might otherwise have acheived. (Perhaps it’s proof positive that content really is different from other feats of engineering.) “The Morning Show,” in trying to sell all sides of its story without committing to telling a single one well, falls startlingly short. And, worst of all, there’s not a human worth caring about in sight.