The Morning Show returns with a two-episode premiere September 13. New episodes premiere Wednesdays through November 8.
Basing a TV show on real-life events is a double-edged sword, as Apple TV+’s flagship drama, The Morning Show, has discovered in each of its three seasons. The series was already in development before the #MeToo movement broke into the mainstream, but its debut outing was reworked to reflect the shifting landscape with unsatisfactory results for a title boasting this much star power. As the global pandemic crept closer toward the UBA network team in its second season, it was another case of a clunky response to reality. While the ramifications of lockdown still reverberate, The Morning Show has (thankfully) leaped forward in time to give it a new lease of life with Jon Hamm and Nicole Beharie joining the already-impressive ensemble. It is as slick, glossy, and wildly entertaining as ever; however, when it leans heavily into ripped-from-the-headlines stories, it reverts to old messy habits that undercut the tension within the workplace.
The loss of Steve Carell’s accused sexual predator, Mitch Kessler, in a twist that still feels like a fever dream – he drove off a cliff in Italy – removes one of The Morning Show’s more unwieldy and distracting threads. Mitch’s name and actions still hang over certain interactions like a ghoulish cautionary tale, and completely erasing the character would be disingenuous. Instead, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is no longer wholly bound to their partnership, and her new “no secrets” reputation offers a counterpoint to the buttoned-up and fearful-of-repercussions armor she wore in the first two seasons. Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t share this same devil-may-care perspective, creating tension outside of their initial, clichéd rivalry, offering a fresher take on their pairing.
Notable personnel changes occurring during the two-year time jump ensure the series doesn’t get stuck in a rut, as neither Alex nor her old rival Bradley is anchoring TMS. Alex’s at-home pandemic broadcast led to her own show on UBA+, the streamer UBA’s CEO Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) was desperately trying to launch last season. Bradley got her dream job as the anchor on the coveted evening news and the straight-talker seemingly has it all – well, at least in her professional life. While its use of the news as story fodder leans awkward and even cheesy, the writing comes to life when it focuses on the television business. (It is also impossible to ignore that a conversation about saving traditional media is taking place on Apple TV+) Rather than sounding “too inside baseball,” budget cuts, a flailing streaming service, and pay inequality are more engaging than The Morning Show’s dramatizations of the January 6th insurrection (oh yes, expect this in Season 3), the pandemic, and #MeToo.
There are several layers to the finances of the 80-year-old broadcaster, from Hamm joining the cast as tech billionaire Paul Marks to the news team discussing the wildly varied salaries they receive for doing the same work. Alex Levy might be an open book, but UBA is not, and when secrets are weaponized via a cyber attack, there is a much-needed shift in conversation and culture at the network (including one centered on race). Despite the glossy veneer, this isn’t a fairy tale version of the industry, and these hard truths don’t radically or automatically change the deeply ingrained behaviors. Whereas the toxic workplace stories that stemmed from Mitch’s undoing felt rushed and clunky, this is far more organic – but with those hallmark Morning Show dialing-up-the-drama flourishes that are equally fascinating and frustrating.
The Apple TV+ drama is at its most insightful when embracing every facet of its workplace soap opera, and how these secrets pour out is over-the-top, entertaining, and entirely plausible – to a point. Within this storyline, characters like producer Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman) and UBA’s President of News, Stella Bak (Greta Lee), are given far more to do. Watching the two women and new TMS anchor Chris Hunter (Beharie) form an alliance is satisfying, even if this dynamic disappointingly gets lost in the shuffle in later episodes.
All three characters must weigh up why they are at this network, and seeing the concessions they have to make and the victories they occasionally experience is one reason to stick around. It’s hard to single out an MVP between Pittman, Lee, and Beharie in the first half of the season, as each actor expertly cuts to the core of their characters’ compromises. Stella’s links to digital media and her current role give her a unique position with a foot in each world, and Lee deftly portrays how Stella’s past experience informs her current conflict.
Personal and professional history also collide when Paul asks Alex why she’s fighting for a larger role at UBA after all that’s happened and with endless opportunities available elsewhere. Each woman has a different perspective on this particular question. For some, it’s a sense of loyalty, but one thing that connects them all is the desire for change, and this hope that it isn’t a fool’s errand is why they still navigate these punishing waters. The Morning Show has something to say about this, but too often, it doesn’t push deeper into the why and how, opting instead for cliffhangers and goofy plot twists.
The Morning Show is at its most insightful when embracing every facet of its workplace soap opera.
In the post-Mitch era, Alex is serving straight-up DGAF, but even she is boxed in by a system that doesn’t want to give her a seat at the table. In scenes with UBA board chairwoman Cybil Richards (Holland Taylor) and Cory, she pushes back, yet the limited time she spends with Bradley this season proves the most fruitful. The duo has reversed roles, with Bradley acting cagier and the one with something to hide. If Bradley’s friendship is in a much better place with Alex, her fractured romance with Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies) has become part of the overall puzzle. There are significant gaps to fill, and this structure impacts Bradley’s story the most. It also doesn’t help that this character is often at the center of more melodramatic leaps that don’t always land. New showrunner Charlotte Stoudt doesn’t deliver anything quite as silly as Mitch’s fatal drive, but there are some eyebrow-raising sequences within Bradley’s season-long arc.
As with the other women working at UBA, Bradley is considering her role within the media landscape, which helps keep her tethered to the overall themes of the season. Cory is another connective tissue, even if not all employees have equal access. Crudup’s performance has always dripped with manic energy, and he takes it to the next level in his desperation to keep UBA financially afloat while retaining control. Cory always has a backup plan, but the curve balls thrown his way offer a fascinating chance to back him even further into a corner. His plastered-on smile is a signature, but Crudup expertly shows flickers of anger and even fear to let us know exactly where he stands. “We need someone with more money than God” is his typically over-the-top description of UBA’s finances. Enter Hamm, whose return to TV is welcome, and Paul’s disdain for Cory gives their interactions an additional jolt that Crudup more than responds to.
Speaking of chemistry, it’s impossible to ignore Hamm and Aniston’s crackling flirtation. Some of their dialogue is on the corny side, but both actors sell it. The Morning Show smartly avoids asking Hamm to imitate other famous tech titans, though no doubt elements of his business model and successes are mined from their ranks. Paul is a bit of an enigma at first: There are a few hints about his history with another character who works at UBA, and his own company seemingly has zero skeletons in its closet. Of course, secrets are currency in this cutthroat environment, and the corporate thriller portion of season 3 is a highlight. While the boardroom scenes are a pale imitation of Succession, some very satisfying turns set up the already-ordered fourth season.
Even in its strongest season to date, The Morning Show can’t keep itself from throwing too many ingredients into the mix, causing equal amounts of tonal whiplash and entertainment value. Turning to the pandemic and the insurrection as plot drivers is a shaky bid to root the material in authenticity, providing only an air of unnecessary dread that often comes across as forced. Yet, at its most inconsistent and outlandish, The Morning Show demands you stay tuned – regardless of the device you’re watching it on.
A huge budget and stellar cast save The Morning Show from being a complete dud, but it fails on pretty much every other level, from script to character-building, narrative, and — most importantly in a show that professes to want to say something — its own message. The Morning Show definitely isn’t AppleTV+ putting its best foot forward, which is a shame as there’s another world in which a series like this is a vital, necessary, and uncomfortable exploration of a very timely topic. But if these three episodes are anything to go on, that’s not the show we got.
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