This show has everything. It has three popular stars, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell. It revolves around a timely, ripped-from-the-headlines, and dramatically rich topic, namely the chaos after a series of #MeToo accusations are made against a network TV morning anchor, a guy who has a door-lock button under his desktop. It has a killer supporting cast, including Mark Duplass and Billy Crudup as fired-up network honchos with and without ethical priorities, respectively. It looks great — it’s the New York of good weather, romantic Fifth Avenue taillights, and grand hotel ballrooms. And it is available through a new streaming platform — Apple TV+ — that carries a world-famous brand name.
This show has everything, including one of the biggest per-episode budgets on TV at some $150 million per 10-episode season, and yet: It’s OK. Just OK.
“The Morning Show” goes through all the motions of “quality drama,” and it certainly has moments of excellence, when Aniston breaks through to some true rage as Alex Levy, the anchor left on the air after the shakeup, or when the script moves with the ensemble agility of one of Aaron Sorkin’s media-themed shows, “The Newsroom” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” I wasn’t bored watching the first three episodes, which Apple TV+ made available for review, as they sweep back and forth through the network studio set and the anchors’ to-die-for homes.
But I was consistently underwhelmed by the show’s hazy point of view — its preoccupation with the tensions between two women (Alex and her scrappy new on-air partner, Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson) and its aversion to the horrors of the office sexual predation by Steve Carell’s anchor Mitch Kessler. If you’re taking on one of the most volatile issues in America right now, you best know where you’re coming from. Initially, as Mitch complains that the PAs and assistants he had sex with “liked it,” I assumed we were watching a Matt Lauer-like manchild in denial, unwilling to entertain the import of his actions. But he’s Carell, whose lovability leaks through here, and in episode 3 we are all but invited to root for him. Commiserating with another #MeToo-ed man, a director played by Martin Short who blames his victims, one of whom was 15, Mitch becomes disgusted. He’s not as awful, he realizes. It’s an awkward moment for the viewer, since the scene is dropped into the drama without context about Mitch, and it undermines the show’s infrastructure. The best option might have been to make Mitch’s role into a one-episode-long catalyst.
Another basic problem is that “The Morning Show” revolves around a network format that has been tired for a long time now. The anchors as our family, the endlessly fluffy promotion of movies and TV, the fake chitchat — it’s hard to care an awful lot about the show within the show, also called “The Morning Show,” or “TMS.” All the high drama about the fate of “TMS” and its ladder-climbing personnel feels grandiose at times, just as it did in the two Sorkin shows I mentioned. You all are putting on a mediocre TV series, not planning our approach to the Middle East.
The issue of institutionalized sexism is always afoot, and the show fares best when dealing with it. Alex is pampered, and the firing of Mitch wakes her up; she realizes she “fell asleep at the wheel” by not paying attention to Mitch’s behavior, and she’s driven to muster her power at the network and use it. She begins to strategize against the male execs who control her destiny and who want her off the show. Aniston makes Alex’s newly found passion work and then some; this is her most magnetic dramatic performance. Witherspoon is entertaining, but the role — a feisty woman plucked from the sticks to be made-over into a network face — is unclear. As Alex liberates herself from the network patriarchy, Bradley at times seems to be falling in with it.
Perhaps the mixed signals of the first three episodes will resolve as the season — and the second season, already ordered — proceed. With a sharper point of view, “The Morning Show” could be more than a murky showcase for Aniston and Witherspoon, and it could be more than just OK.
THE MORNING SHOW
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Billy Crudup, Steve Carell, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bel Powley, Karen Puttman, Ian Gomez, Nestor Carbonell, Shari Belafonte, Jack Davenport. On: Apple TV+. The first three episodes are available Nov. 1, and then a new one will debut every Friday.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.