After well over a year of Apple+ hype, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon’s “The Morning Show” has finally arrived — and it’s a broadcast snooze.
A racially tone-deaf dive into the shark tank of television news, it trades too heavily on our knowledge of the Matt Lauer scandal at the expense of character development and commits some egregious plotting errors at the expense of plausibility.
We start in the middle of the story, the day “Morning Show” co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell, playing against type as an entitled sleaze bag) is fired from his hit show of many years for numerous instances of sexual misconduct. His co-anchor, Alex Levy (Aniston), is summoned to the studio with urgent messages from her exhausted boss, Charlie Black (Mark Duplass). When she gets out of her town car in front of the office building that houses the studio, she asks, “Who died?”
Starting the show with a jolt gives producers — and especially director Mimi Leder, a veteran of NBC’s “ER” — a chance to treat “The Morning Show” set like a hospital emergency room struck by disaster.
There’s a lot of walking and talking in hallways as the personnel figure out how to manage the crisis. Because the show, already slipping in the ratings, might die without Kessler. And Levy’s contract renegotiation might not come to a successful conclusion now that network executives are referring to her as Kessler’s on-air “widow.” As for the suits, they’re having a nervo at the potential loss of advertising revenue. In short, rather than a real life-or-death emergency, these self-serving media types are merely thinking of themselves. Bo-ring.
A little context would have helped. Three episodes in, we don’t know anything about the charisma Kessler must have had to remain on top for so long. From Levy’s point of view, we don’t know why this collegial working relationship is so crucial to her future. Kessler is the villain of the piece from the get-go and what happens afterward is entirely predictable. Network president Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup, the best performer in the cast) cannot wait to get rid of Alex and revamp the show for younger viewers.
Enter Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), a minor-market field reporter whose on-air meltdown at a protest she is covering goes viral — and wins her an interview on “The Morning Show.” Jackson’s ability to go ballistic on the spot is exactly what the suits are looking for to goose the ratings; show execs, including Black, find her argumentative personality obnoxious. So, of course, Levy handpicks Jackson as her co-host in an effort to save her job.
None of this would happen in TV’s era of diversity optics.
The high-stakes, big-money world of TV news relies on big-name agents, extensive vetting and a corporate support for diversity. Look at the top network morning shows and you will see the faces of Craig Melvin, Hoda Kotb, Gayle King and Robin Roberts. In a damning piece of Hollywood myopia, we have two elite white actresses sharing anchor duties.
Several minority characters are passed over for the position, and this narrative blunder exacerbates the overall dated look and feel of “The Morning Show.”
Having a script that’s fresh is a cynical, secondary consideration. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the streaming wars is we are getting more shows where viewers are supposed by entertained by the star power of the casts instead of the strength of the story. On Ryan Murphy’s recent dud, “The Politician,” you’re supposed to get all hot and bothered because blond eminence Gwyneth Paltrow is on the show, the latest exhibit in Murphy’s museum of actresses.
On “The Morning Show,” you’re supposed to reach some kind of TV orgasm because Aniston and Witherspoon are together in a scene. In terms of the story, there is not enough contrast between the two performers in terms of their age or temperaments for Witherspoon to work as the underdog. And we really don’t buy this former debutante as someone from a working-class background. Her come-and-go Southern accent doesn’t help matters, either. Fresh off the underwhelming Season 2 of “Big Little Lies,” for which she was partly responsible as executive producer, it might be time for Witherspoon to do a reality check.
Aniston has a better time handling her role. Maybe it’s because she’s a veteran of network TV wars and knows the lay of the land better. Like Sarah Jessica Parker on “Divorce,” though, part of her needs very badly to be liked by the viewer so she resorts to sighing privately every time her character has to get tough with the big boys at the network. Are we really meant to believe that Alex Levy is such a cupcake? Aniston could have used some of Faye Dunaway’s demented moxie in the legendary “Don’t f–k with me, fellas” boardroom scene from “Mommie Dearest” when Levy gives a list of her demands to the network brass.
Don’t be afraid to own the scene, Jen. We’ll still buy all those Aveeno products you’ve been hawking for the past six years.
The only performer who really goes for it on “The Morning Show” is Crudup, who is perfect as the creepy network president who says of Aniston’s character “watching a beloved American woman’s breakdown is timeless entertainment.” He is King Leer with a shark’s grin. That said, the scene where Cory Ellison takes Bradley Jackson shopping for her on-air wardrobe was completely ludicrous. Would not happen.
“The Morning Show” reportedly cost $15 million per episode to produce, for a grand total of $300 million for its two-season order. Apple really bet the bank on this one. Outside of navel-gazing media circles, it’s unlikely to earn much interest.
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