On paper, Apple TV+’s centerpiece series The Morning Show makes some kind of sense: A-list talent assembles for a story that speaks directly to (and of) MeToo against the potentially juicy backdrop of a network morning show’s production. But soon into the first episode (which along with the next two, debuted on Friday), the question in my head quickly shifted from “What could go wrong?” to “Will they get anything right?” The answer, so far, is no. It’s all so astonishingly misguided, this poseur series that knows what prestige television is but can’t for the life of itself manage to muster a convincing facsimile.
You can tell something is wrong here by how often its characters say the word “fuck.” I sense it’s for the sake of grit, but the word is shoehorned awkwardly into the mouths of characters whose language is otherwise not nearly so colorful. Check out the video above for evidence—keep in mind it only uses material from the three episodes released thus far, and it doesn’t even include every uttered “fuck.”
The inclusion of so many “fucks” seems to be a writers-room shortcut to “how real people talk,” and as such comes off unimaginative. Scenes are punctuated with groaners (“You think chemistry comes in a bottle and we just go out and buy another one at Whole Foods?” asks Jennifer Aniston’s character) and predicated on unspecific pontificating on the nature of media. In stark contrast to the lazy scripts, and perhaps as compensation for them, actors whose aptitude has long been established, like Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell, are all acting for their lives, doing the absolute most all of the time. It’s not merely as if they’ve turned up to 11; it’s as if they start at 11 and only amp up from there. (See the video below.) It’s rare to see such a high-profile project (Apple reportedly sunk $300 million into the show’s first two seasons) regularly whipped into a laughable frenzy; for past examples of this very effect, Showgirls comes too mind.
It’s the weirdest thing. The Morning Show is not camp—it’s too khaki, for one thing, and not quite outrageous enough, despite it brimming with outrage—and yet it contains so many of the sensibility’s elements, including a counterintuitive watchability. I binged those three episodes this weekend. They move at a fast clip and continually deliver narrative rewards, at least in the relative sense of the show’s flawed universe. The algorithm works. It’s not that I couldn’t wait to see what the characters would do next; it’s that I couldn’t wait to see what the ensemble would attempt and fail at.
The Morning Show comes wrapped in layers of ersatz, like some non-returnable gift covered in tissue paper at the bottom of a gift bag. There’s its straightforward attempt to replicate the highly manicured aesthetic of morning television. Grafted onto that is another synthetic layer to convey the actual lives of the humans who make it. Neither feels particularly well-observed. The morning show that Aniston’s Alex hosts (title: The Morning Show) is so bland that it’s nearly impossible to root for its salvation after a crisis. The show opens in the wake of Alex’s co-host Mitch, played by Carell, being fired after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct (more than slightly reminiscent of Matt Lauer). So basic is the fictional programming that when Witherspoon’s Bradley appears on it to talk about a much-shared video of her yelling at a pro-coal idiot during a coal mine protest (as if such a video would go viral?), she was covering for a local station in West Virginia, the graphic behind her reads, “Gone Viral.” Bradley, through multiple rapid contrivances, finds her way to filling Mitch’s absent anchor seat. We’re told several times that she’s conservative (that gets eventually revised to libertarian) and that her previous outlet was conservative, but we’re given no real indication of how her politics (which seem to be anti-coal and cognizant that white privilege is a scourge) are actually conservative. Not a lot makes sense here, and so to distract you, the actors just scream a lot.
Alex and Bradley are rivals of sorts. Alex is the seasoned vet whose composure on camera belies massive anxiety behind the scenes, whereas Bradley’s a real Southern firecracker who explodes at will (she’s known as “Two-Fucks Jackson” because she said “fuck” twice during a past news broadcast). They both reveal that they think the other is full of shit, but their competition is strangely muffled and even vague on a show whose characters are practically painting the walls by throwing up their feelings at every turn. It’s odd that a show about MeToo presents the movement foremost as an obstacle to Alex; she assures her audience that she stands with Mitch’s accusers, but the crisis mode she’s in centers on how Mitch’s behavior and firing is affecting her career. If she has any particular relationship with harassment or misconduct or feelings about the movement in general, the show is in no hurry to explore it.
It’s even odder that many scenes allow Mitch to vent about unfair accusations and cancel culture, taking a real gotta-hear-both-sides approach to MeToo. Even a character as virtually blank as exhausted producer Chip (Mark Duplass) gets an odd moment of commiseration in with Mitch, in what I think is supposed to be a flash of legitimate wisdom: “The whole MeToo movement is probably an overcorrection for centuries of bad behavior that more enlightened men like you and me had nothing to do with,” he says. Huh? The Morning Show is otherwise teeming with male gaze: Men in charge like Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) give a running commentary on the women they manage. “It’s too bad we can’t always throw a crisis at her. It turns her lights on,” he says about Alex. “She has got raw talent coming out of her pores,” he says about Bradley. So much of the way men talk about women on this show both works as exposition and an obnoxious self-reflexive commentary that’s as congratulatory as a laugh track. The action regularly cuts to Crudup grinning with smug bemusement, like he can’t believe the good fortune he has to witness all of this firsthand. Whatever they’re doing, he loves it. It’s all so unbelievably amazing. He’s right, but for the wrong reasons. I can almost relate to the joy in taking it all in, and that makes me kind of disappointed in myself.