Apple TV+ Enters Prestige TV with Compelling, #MeToo-Centric ‘The Morning Show’ | Review

     November 1, 2019

It’s impossible to talk about The Morning Show without also considering how “important” this series is to its streaming home. It’s the star-studded flagship for the launch of Apple TV+, a brand new streaming service from the tech giant responsible for changing how the world uses cell phones. It’s what House of Cards was to Netflix, and what The Mandalorian will be to Disney+. It’s the show that will make the most significant first impression when people are introduced to Apple TV+, which is why they reportedly spent a whopping $300 million on the first two seasons, signed huge stars like Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell, and even landed prestige talent like composer Carter Burwell (who’s scored pretty much every Coen Brothers movie) to make his longform TV debut. It’s a big deal, and Apple TV+ is treating it as such. So, then, was the hullabaloo all worth it? Is The Morning Show actually any good? Well yeah, actually. It’s not a bad addition to the onslaught of “prestige TV.”

The Morning Show is really three different TV shows in one, all on a collision course with one another. There’s the story of Alex Levy (Aniston), co-anchor of a popular nationwide news program called “The Morning Show” who is deep in contract negotiations with the network to extend her run on the show despite being perceived as being past her prime; there is Alex’s co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Carell), whose arc opens the series as he is very publicly fired from “The Morning Show” after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct leak to the press; and then there’s Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), a “conservative” (the kind of fictional, liberal-leaning conservative you only see on TV) field anchor working for a conservative news network in middle America who gains national attention after a confrontation with a coal mining protestor goes viral.

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Image via Apple

The show opens with Mitch’s firing, which gives Alex a chance to shine as the face of The Morning Show’s public response and, somewhat grotesquely, the recipient of a ratings boost. Meanwhile, Jackson is called up to appear on The Morning Show thanks to her viral video, although the no-nonsense journalist isn’t keen on playing games or bucking her prickly persona for the benefit of The Morning Show’s feel-good-story-loving audience. Then there’s Kessler, who privately fumes about being ousted from the show and claims he was only guilty of having consensual affairs with lower-level staffers.

Indeed, The Morning Show doesn’t simply use the misconduct storyline as an inciting event—it’s the backbone of the season-long arc. This is very much a show made during and for the #MeToo era, and curiously showrunner Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel) aims to provide some insight into the accused’s point of view. Don’t get me wrong, the show doesn’t condone Mitch’s actions nor does it ask the audience to sympathize with him. But this three-pronged story does devote one significant arc to Mitch’s POV.

The show purposefully leaves the details of Mitch’s misconduct vague for the first few episodes, and it’s no coincidence that someone as charming and likable as Steve Carell is cast in the role. While The Morning Show is very careful not to endorse Mitch’s comments, it does provide a window into his line of thinking and ill-conceived next steps. And his existing dynamic with Alex makes the situation all the more complex.

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Image via Apple

Aniston delivers a terrific performance as an intrepid, successful woman who’s tired of fighting so hard merely to be considered on equal footing with her male counterpart, only to find she must fight twice as hard now that her career’s future is in limbo. Aniston is unafraid to make Alex prickly or even at times somewhat unlikable, which makes the character all the more compelling. Frankly, it’s the kind of role men have been lauded for playing for years in some of the most celebrated TV shows of all time, and it’s refreshing to see not just a “female version” of a complicated character, but one with a uniquely feminine perspective. This is not plug-and-play Walter White or Don Draper, “but as a lady instead.” It’s a new, fully formed, complicated female character.

Carell, too, is solid, although Mitch’s screentime in the first three episodes (the only ones available for review) is more limited than that of Alex’s or Bradley’s, and I have a feeling we’ll get closure on his story one way or another by the season’s end. Then there’s Witherspoon, whose character feels like it went through the most changes behind the scenes. She’s introduced as a conservative, then in the next episode is described as a liberal conservative, then in the third episode she’s described as a libertarian. Politics take a significant backseat in what feels like it could be the most significant “network note” to the show as a whole, but despite reports that Apple wanted its shows to be PG-rated, there are a lot of f-bombs thrown around throughout The Morning Show’s first three episodes.

But back to Bradley. In actuality, Witherspoon is only five years younger than Aniston, but in the show Bradley—described as a single, childless 40-year-old—is pitted as a potential threat to the well-established Alex Levy. It’s a bit of an odd fit even if Aniston and Witherspoon’s chemistry is wonderfully tense and loaded with subtlety, but it does feel like Bradley settles a bit more into an established character by the third episode. Until then, the show isn’t entirely sure what it wants her to be: redneck liberal, fierce Southerner, green ingénue, or diamond-in-the-rough talent.

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Image via Apple

There is much that The Morning Show wants to chew on thematically, and to Ehrin’s credit it succeeds more often than it fails. As a #MeToo capsule it tackles the issue with complexity, refusing to paint clear black-and-white lines and instead relishing in exploring the grey area we all actually live in; there are no clear heroes and villains. As a chronicle of the changing media landscape, it’s a bit less successful but nonetheless compelling, and Billy Crudup is a scene-stealer as Cory Ellison, the oddly charming, possibly creepy, definitely crazy head of the network who’s only been in the job for a short time. Crudup delivers a monologue in the pilot that is chilling and strange and aspirational all at once, and while you’re not sure whether you love him or hate him, you definitely want to see more of him.

The true MVP of these first few episodes, however, is director Mimi Leder, who helms the first two installments and sets the stage for what’s to come. Leder has had an esteemed career with credits ranging from ER to Deep Impact to the RBG biopic On the Basis of Sex, but it’s her work on HBO’s underrated The Leftovers that’s been most striking in recent years, and she continues that streak with The Morning Show. The way she positions actors in a scene or composes a shot is all entirely in service of the characters and driving home the emotion of any given scene, and her work is crucial to the tightrope walk of tone that occurs through the first couple of episodes. The show is tackling very serious subject matter, but it never feels overly dramatic or self-serious. There is time for levity, and the show is often very funny, but the humor comes organically from the story or characters. It’s a “dramedy” for lack of a better word, but it really does ultimately just feel quite human.

It’s unclear if The Morning Show is destined to make the same pop cultural imprint that House of Cards or Stranger Things or Breaking Bad did. The TV landscape is positively flooded with content at the moment, and there’s more competition for your eyeballs than ever. But you can’t say Apple TV+ didn’t put all it had into The Morning Show, and despite reports of some creative upheaval behind the scenes, the resulting show is a pretty smooth ride. There’s a lot to like, and it’s a series that is tackling complicated issues like sexual misconduct, unchecked misogyny, women in positions of power, and the changing media landscape with refreshing complexity. As far as first impressions go, this introduction from Apple TV+ ain’t too shabby.

Rating: ★★★

The Morning Show will be available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+ on November 1st. For more on Apple’s content, check out our reviews for SeeDickinson, and For All Mankind.

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