The Morning Show review: A confident start for Apple TV+
Ivan Radford | On 28, Oct 2019Reading time: 12 mins
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” admits Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) several episodes into The Morning Show, Apple TV+’s new newsroom drama. It’s a rare moment of honesty in a show that questions what exactly that is in the modern media age.
That admission could be emblematic of the whole show, given that it comes from such an untested source: the online giant Apple is launching its subscription service, Apple TV+, the best part of a decade after Netflix ushered into the streaming era, having spent years selling computers, phones and MP3 players. What does the company know about making TV to compete with the big dogs of the small screen? What it does do is a smart move: give money to Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon to exec-produce something they’re passionate about.
The result is a star-studded, fast-paced, whip-smart breakdown of the current state of journalism, a show that captures the buzz of a studio, the hum of 24/7 media attention, the pressure of trying to stay true to one’s self while also staying relevant. In other words, it’s everything you could want a flagship TV drama to be.
The prestige telly vibe is right there from the opening scene, as all of the titular programme’s players are rounded up to tackle a crisis: Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), Alex’s longstanding co-anchor, has been fired for sexual misconduct. The decision sends the show into a tailspin, as Alex has to keep on broadcasting solo, trying to move on while still addressing the issue.
At the same time, we’re introduced to Bradley (Reese Witherspoon), a younger, no-nonsense reporter, who loses her rag at a coal mine demonstration and ends up ranting at a protestor. When a video of her yelling goes viral, she’s brought on to The Morning Show for an interview – just at a time when Alex is negotiating her contract renewal and the show’s makers are looking for a Mitch replacement.
What happens next is at once predictable and surprising, but the details don’t matter: the joy of The Morning Show lies in seeing Aniston and Witherspoon collide repeatedly, as the duo sink their teeth into two fantastic roles. Aniston is impeccable as the far from flawless Alex, a veteran broadcaster who has become lonely and exhausted over the years. She’s both yesterday’s news and the topic du jour, a career woman with a broken but close family, the woman regarded as a much-loved mother by the nation, but who is treated like an outdated grandma by the TV bosses. Witherspoon is just as good as Bradley, a straight-talking whirlwind of transparency. She starts a little too noisily, as required by the plot, but she soon settles down to prove her bite is as brash as her bark; when asked if she’s not a typical woman by one character, she immediately asks back what a “typical woman” is.
What the duo have in common is that they’re both tired of not being listened to, of being pushed around by men in suits or told they don’t fit the right profile. And so, while they begin in the all-too-familiar position of rivals, they refreshingly start to move from head to-head antagonists to side-by-side partners, each inspiring the mad-as-hell other not to take it any more. During any interviews where Bradley’s being questioned, it’s only a few answers until she starts interrogating the other person. And the more time Alex spends asking for approval of her future co-anchor, the more outspoken she gets about what she thinks and what she wants from her show.
It’s enjoyable just to see a TV series in which two rounded, entertaining characters get to run things, and they’re backed up by a stellar ensemble cast, each given the chance to be more complex than they initially appear. Billy Crudup steals every scene as Cory, an entertainment exec brought in to liven up the news for an audience that wants light viewing – but he’s more sincere than slimy, and shrewdly understands that these days, people can get news in the palm of their hand the way they want, already matching their own political views. Mark Duplass is sympathetic as Chip, the exec producer of the show who is loyal to Alex but also begrudgingly beholden to Cory and her whims, leaving him stressed and powerless.
Even the always excellent Gugu Mbatha-Raw gets a chance to shine as the head booker of the programme, who has a knack for putting the right people together. Karen Pittman also impresses as Mia a dogged and skilled producer – the fact that she effectively gives herself that job is the icing on the cake. All the while, Daniel (a calm, compelling Desea Terry) watches on as his chance to be the first black co-anchor on a daily morning news show risks slipping away, while he’s stuck reviewing things such as Gilmore Girls: The Musical.
Away from the studio, Steve Carell continues his strong streak of dramatic roles as a man realising he’s out of touch with modern society – not in terms of news but in terms of morals and decency. Once the daddy of breakfast telly, he’s now an outcast filled with anger and sadness, struggling to understand why he’s being punished as part of what he thinks is a “less bad” wave of #MeToo allegations. (A conversation in Episode 3 highlights just how muddled he is.)
Director Mimi Leder pings pongs back and forth between them all with aplomb. Mitch is kept in a cold world of greys and blues and Alex is surrounded with warm yellows and oranges, even though both are isolated in their own ways. The power of a televisual close-up is never forgotten and the professional chaos of a studio is only briefly drowned out by the human drama.
As the programme prepares to address Mitch’s accusations head on, writer Kerry Ehrin finds sympathy and retribution on all sides of the fence, without losing sight of what’s right and wrong. As a result, it’s not always clear what defines this morning news programme, but that’s indicative of the bigger picture; this is a snapshot of an industry in confusion, where professional jealousy, digital disruption and social uncertainty only fuel the competitive politics at play.
“You’ll never get to something honest and you’re gonna be crucified for it,” Mia warns Alex, as she braces for a potentially incendiary interview. But honesty is what The Morning Show offers, admitting the current state of affairs: that the news is awful and we’re all addicted to that.
It’s a polished but personal affair, one that cuts through topical and often difficult subjects with a deceptively breezy touch, a confident stride and an often amusing burst of dialogue. If this is its flagship TV show, Apple does know what it’s doing after all.
The Morning Show is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.
And finally (spoilers)
– “Are we doing this?” Bradley asks Alex in the final episode of The Morning Show’s first season, and it’s in that question that everything in this maiden run clicks into place. Apple TV+’s flagship drama was met with mixed reviews when it first debuted, as people complained it lacked focus, but the show’s strength has always been the fact that it doesn’t shy away from how complicated its subject matter is. Systemic abuse, cover-ups, exposes and recovery, while morally straight-forward, is not, on a practical level, an easy thing to delineate or solve. The Morning has embraced that messiness ever since its first episode when news of Mitch’s sexual harassment broke.
– Mitch, throughout all of this, has failed to see what he did wrong, and the decision to cast Steve Carell in that role remains as provocative as ever, as Carell’s loveable charisma dares us to sympathise with him. But as the series goes on, and his angry entitlement in the face of his ruined career builds, the show highlights just how built up the infrastructure is around him to have enabled him in the first place – and just how bewildered he is by the sudden disappearance of it all. The episode when he casually walks back onto set, the moment when he and Alex kiss in his car, the point at which he agrees to do an interview with Bradley to confess everything – all of it is tied up with his own self-centered perception of the world.
– Mark Duplass as Chip, too, has been an MVP throughout Season 1. Increasingly the fall guy for Mitch’s behaviour, and clearly someone who allowed the whole thing to go on, he also emerges as something of a good guy: he’s the one who leaked Mitch’s abuse in the first place, bringing the whole thing into the public. And yet, of course, he has his own motivations for doing so: he did it to help Alex, because the network was planning to get rid of her. Although, by the end of the final episode, he also gets to confront Mitch and punch him in the face in anger at the death of Hannah.
– Gugu Mbatha-Raw kept growing in prominence throughout Season 1, as her savvy talent booker came into the spotlight. She, we learn, had a relationship with Mitch, one that he thought was her using him to get a leg up the career leader, but, as she explains it, it was really him taking advantage of her on a business trip. Reporting his harassment, she was then asked to keep quiet in exchange for a promotion. She took it. That decision, and her decision to go on the record with Bradley to help expose Mitch, made her far more rounded and conflicted than a simple two-dimensional victim of a predator. At every step, Mbatha-Raw has invested her with more depth than that, and the scripts have gradually given her more meat to sink her teeth into, as Hannah questioned whether she should have to be the one to protect other people by speaking, while also questioning whether she could cope with taking on that burden, and being defined by her victimhood for ever. The discovery of her body, after a fatal overdose, made her death even more moving and shocking.
– Chip, of course, tries to pressurise the interview into happening before he hears of Hannah’s death – because he’s trying to get ahead of the network announcing his redundancy and their replacement for him. It’s a selfish play, just like Bradley partly wants to do the interview to put things right, but also wants to do it as a major move for her own career.
– All while this is going on, Fred and Alex are conspiring to fire Chip, announce the new producer (the wonderfully named “Marlon Tate”) and get things back on track. Fred firing Chip is sickening to watch, while Alex agreeing to his plans is uncomfortable viewing, as she puts her own career first, above anything else. With Maggie Brennan, journo for New York Magazine, sniffing around and threatening to run stories about it all, the clock is ticking, and The Morning Show really gets to demonstrate how slick it is: the final hour is masterfully paced and timed, hurtling us towards a climax that never shies away from the complications at hand, but does so with a polished, precise goal.
– One final shout-out to Billy Crudup, whose Cory has been a joy to watch all season. In other years, he, like the rest of the cast, would be getting nominated for awards, as he perfectly balances that marketing sleaziness with a shrewd understanding of how culture is changing and a shark-like instinct for protecting himself and those he respects. He and Alex doing their duet at her party is both fun and funny, as we try to work out how sincere he is when he sings “nothing’s gonna harm you”.
– But the stars of the show, of course, are Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. From the inevitable, yet delightful, moment when Alex surprise-announces Bradley as her new co-host, it’s clear that these two are at the top of their games here, managing to be supportive and suspicious of each other, and encouraging and critical of one another, all the while placing themselves in a professional relationship where they have to trust and depend on the other. Witherspoon’s Bradley is a fiery, righteous force that isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, even though that repeatedly backfires on her. Aniston is a wonder as Alex, whose strive for self-preservation is empowering on one level, even as her culpability in the wider situation makes you wonder how empowering she is to those around her.
– In the wake of Hannah’s death, and after Bradley confesses to Alex that they were going to interview Mitch behind her back, Alex snaps – and she begins, in the middle of the broadcast, to reflect on her role and why she’s conspiring with Fred against her co-host. And so they both start together to announce, live on-air, the details of Mitch’s harassment, of Hannah’s life, of Alex turning a blind eye to everything, and about Fred’s role in covering everything up. With swelling music, edge-of-your-seat pacing and their performances, the result finds power in the sheer simplicity of two women daring to speak out – a fist-bump, inspiring, stirring final gesture that will have you in tears. How many other shows of the last year have been able to dissect complex questions of sex, workplace politics, culpability in the #MeToo age and the importance of media telling the truth to power, all while making you laugh and cry? Expect everyone to finally be talking about when Season 2 comes along.
– Line of the show: “Don’t hug me right now. What the hell’s that going to fix??