“The Morning Show” arrived in 2019 with all the trappings of “Prestige TV.” Like those movies that hit theaters every November and December, the non-franchise releases with “acclaimed” actors and serious Oscar-bait subject matter, the Apple TV+ drama looked like it just might be original and intentional enough to fit into a conversation alongside “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” or, more realistically at least second-tier prestige stuff like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Americans.”
Starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston and set behind the scenes of network news, co-created by a writer-producer of “Friday Night Lights” and “Bates Motel,” the show came on like one of the anointed few. 1) It featured big stars who’ve already won awards and who will therefore be nominated for more. 2) Many of the characters were depressed and/or morally compromised, and we were invited to analyze why. 3) There were season-long story arcs. 4) Some of the characters were sitting on big secrets that would come out, but slowly. And 5) It had a movie-like gloss, by which I mean that it was designed expensively and filmed “cinematically.”
The definition of prestige TV is subjective, of course, but I think it’s safe to say, four years later, that “The Morning Show” does not fall into the most esteemed TV category, despite all appearances. It has flipped and flopped in quality, most notably with its muddled MeToo plot about the abuse of power by (and the death of) Steve Carell’s Mitch and with its straining effort at capturing a TV anchor with severe COVID broadcasting from her home. Bringing current events into a fictionalized setting can be risky, and the first two seasons of “The Morning Show” reminded us why, as reality undermined the script’s authenticity and impact.
Unlike the bulk of prestige series, it’s not built for viewers to analyze its characters deeply and, as many of us did with “Succession,” tie early traumas to current behaviors. There’s not enough subtlety in the writing for that, with characters whose backstories don’t go much deeper than “poor childhood” or “recently divorced.” The stars are the focus, almost more than their characters, who are inconsistent and whose motivations stay on the surface. The show is about the story lines, and what will happen next, not about the facets of human nature, or gradual transformation (“Fleabag”), or the inability to transform (“The Sopranos”), or the curiousness of living life in the looming face of death (“Six Feet Under”).
“The Morning Show” is far from the first failed prestige TV series in the past couple of decades. Most TV releases don’t aspire to greatness so much as they hope to find their demographic, reaching for an audience sometimes with the help of data about viewing patterns. “Ozark,” for example, had its moments, but I never saw it trying to become an all-timer; it was “in the manner of” “Breaking Bad,” but with a couple on its moral pivot instead of one man. “Vinyl,” on the other hand, showed up bearing distinguished names (Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter of “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos”), a wannabe antihero, and a dazzling period production, but it didn’t manage to rise above its sometimes formulaic story lines.
“Bloodline” brought with it a more genuine promise, with a few remarkable performances (Ben Mendelsohn, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard) and a complex take on the prototypical family black sheep. Alas, it should have been a miniseries; by season two (of three), it was straining for meaning. “John From Cincinnati” was co-created and written by David Milch of “Deadwood,” a prestige classic, and it premiered on HBO’s schedule directly after “The Sopranos” finale. But it was quickly clear that the surf noir had nothing specific to say, as the vague characters spouted pretentious, empty dialogue. It was a snore.
“The Morning Show” is not a snore, as the many plot lines seem to yell out to viewers, “Hey, look at me.” With season three, which premiered on Wednesday, it has shed any remnants of quality ambition and given into soap operatics of the highest order. In short, the series has gone fairly bonkers, with more attention-seeking and more ill-advised ripped-from-the-headlines material than ever. The hits just keep on coming, including an e-mail hack that outs many of the employees’ secrets (including the affair between Witherspoon’s Bradley and Julianna Margulies’s Laura), a twist that puts Bradley in a story about the Jan. 6 insurrection, a racist verbal attack by a network bigwig, and a high-drama love affair for Aniston’s Alex, who is about to take a rocket into space with Elon Musk-like billionaire Paul Marks, played by Jon Hamm, a prestige icon.
There’s plenty more, as the episodes roll ahead, the dual heroines proudly exhibiting bad, unethical behavior like they’re walking the red carpet. Is the busy “The Morning Show” now an exercise in camp? Whatever it is, it’s not prestige TV. Still, it’s hard not to watch, especially coupled with a giddy sense of disbelief.