As if The Newsroom was being rebooted by the writers of The Slap, Apple TV’s first foray into original content arrives with a comically inflated budget, not to mention sense of self importance, and three massive stars leading a broad strokes entertainment industry soap that shares more DNA with Sports Night than with the later, better Aaron Sorkin shows it’s obviously trying to capture the vibe of. Jennifer Aniston stars as a morning TV anchor whose world is shaken by the revelation of sexual misconduct by her co-host (Steve Carell). Needing to find a replacement for Carell, she forms an unlikely partnership with Reese Witherspoon as a ‘real America’ southern homegirl reporter. What emerges between the two women, the actresses being contemporaries who have faced parallel challenges in maintaining stardom into middle age, isn’t quite an All About Eve dynamic as much as something much harder to label, where everyone is honest, principled and has the best intentions. Except the men, obviously.
In every scene there’s visible friction between the show’s original premise — warring female morning show anchors — and what the show eventually landed: the Carell/#MeToo plot, which totally disrupts the opportunity for any simple conflict between the two women. We can’t have Jen and Reese arguing for too long when there’s the matter of speaking truth to power of the patriarchy to be dealt with.
The patriarchy comes in the form, not just of Carell (giving a… surprisingly checked-in performance) but Billy Crudup and Mark Duplass as a network exec and show producer, respectively. They really are the basic downgrade versions of Steven Weber and Bradley Whitford’s Studio 60 characters, always on the edge of making an inspiring speech about the power of television but never quite getting anything particularly exciting across (it also doesn’t help one bit that The Morning Show is the flagship release on a new streaming service, thereby effectively killing network TV as it preaches the medium’s necessity).
Crudup is having a great time — described accurately by Chris Ryan as “high not on cocaine but on his own sensory awareness) — being smarmy and serpentine and it’s a pity most of the ensemble, particularly the flat Duplass, can’t keep up. All the in-studio drama is relatively well-staged and just engaging enough that you probably won’t check your phone more than 4 or 5 times a minute, rather than the usual 9. Where The Morning Show is really exceeding in being ludicrous, though, is with the almost entirely detached Carell storyline.
In episode 1 he smashes his TV yelling “I didn’t rape anybody!!” while Fred Melamed from A Serious Man begs him to calm down. In episode 3 he goes to visit an old friend who was also accused of predatory behaviour, played by a bafflingly miscast, unprecedentedly weary Martin Short. They debate the nuances of #MeToo, sorta, and Carell realises that maybe he shouldn’t totally write off the women who have publicly cancelled him. Whereas the Jen/Reese storyline is largely routine (with the odd surprise flash of abortion confession thrown in), the Carell stuff is totally wildcard, off the maps, impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.
Since the show is preaching white feminism like a gospel choir on Christmas Eve, Kelly Clarkson included, it’s hard to imagine Carell’s character is going to be let off with a warning. Yet the show is giving him so much airtime and opportunity to defend himself, it clearly isn’t trying to label his behaviour (which is established early on as being not quite as serious as certain other high-profile abusive figures) as totally irredeemably evil. Figuring out what statement this strange, extremely mass-appeal, but also kinda inaccessible, show is really trying to make is going to keep me watching. Also Billy Crudup saying the words “woke Twitter”. Who wouldn’t stick around for that?