The Morning Show review: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon navigate the newsroom in a post #MeToo world
The Morning Show creator Jay Carson reveals what is currently wrong with the 24-hour hyper-paced news cycle
Note: This is a review of the first three episodes of The Morning Show, which will be available to stream on Apple TV Plus on 1 November. New episodes will continue to roll out weekly, every Friday.
What works and what doesn't in the Apple TV Plus series, The Morning Show, can best be illustrated with one of its introductory scenes. Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), an old-school non-partisan reporter, is covering a coal mine protest in Virginia when an unruly pro-coal protester knocks down her cameraman while complaining about "fake news." So, she grabs him by the collar, exposes his ignorance and launches into a furious diatribe against the politicians and the government. She soon becomes a viral Internet sensation and gets invited on the titular Morning Show, hosted by veteran TV anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), who is left to pick up the pieces after her co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) gets fired over a #MeToo scandal.
Creator Jay Carson reveals what is currently wrong with the 24-hour hyper-paced news cycle: the constant need to be on top of viral stories which end up hurting the quality of news coverage, how the Internet has turned anyone with a cell phone into a journalist, and how news reporters often become the news themselves, among others. But the show also suffers from some of the very issues it is critiquing: the story covers a lot of breadth, but not enough depth; it reduces the inherent ambiguity of complex issues with simplistic speechifying; for all its talk of representation, the cast and main characters are predominantly white. And in this era of peak TV — as Bradley says, “it’s exhausting” — with so many streaming platforms and so many originals, it doesn't really stand out despite its starry cast.
The Morning Show works as an entertaining mood piece with a backstage look at a news programme broadcast. Its story of a news anchor's fall from grace is undoubtedly similar to the sexual misconduct scandal of NBC's Today show host Matt Lauer. Like Mitch and Alex, Lauer and Ann Curry (although she quit long before the scandal) were like the "mom and dad of morning TV" for millions of Americans. Although the narrative may not be exact in its details, it is unmistakably true to the spirit of events that marked a radical shift in our cultural outlook regarding sexual harassment, the abuse of power, and the silencing of women's voices.
However, most of the drama and conversation between the genders is not so much about sexual misconduct as it is about power politics in the workplace. So, as Alex fights to sustain her position of power, the network executives led by Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) try to capitalise on the situation to replace her with someone new and spunky — like Bradley.
The script has Aaron Sorkin's punchy rhythm and Amy Sherman-Palladino's melodramatic styling, even though it mocks the latter. But often smart-sounding bromides are fed into the mouth of a character to make up for weak dialogue. Sample this for example, where Bradley describes her faux idealism: "Kid grows up in the country around a bunch of cows and cornfields, and dreams of a life that's less about manure and more about ideas, things that matter — only to grow up and realise manure matters a whole lot."
Bradley combines Tracy Flick's fiery ambition and Madeline Mackenzie's angry outbursts — and Witherspoon's talents are tailor-made for the role. Alex is perhaps Aniston's most challenging role of her career, and is assured enough in her ability to touch upon various emotions to illuminate her character's inward and outward struggles. Crudup as the sly network executive has a triumphant smirk on his face throughout as he manipulates things behind the scenes. He pushes corporate agenda one minute ("People don't want news or journalism; they want entertainment") and champions feminism ("Be the narrative real women are living") the next. Equally manipulative is Morning Show talent booker Hannah Shoenfeld, whom Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays with a devious calmness while providing a running commentary on the lengths new agencies go to in order to control the #MeToo narrative. Steve Carell continues to stretch his dramatic chops as he traverses the tricky terrain of humanising a sexual predator.
Mitch's character is an interesting one. He denies the accusations of course. He reiterates that they were always consensual and refers to them as "just extracurricular sex." He calls #MeToo McCarthyism, and even blames it all on Harvey Weinstein. But we see him flustered for the first time when a filmmaker (played by Martin Short) facing similar allegations justifies his actions by saying, “There’s nothing sexy about consent.” Seeing Mitch visibly disquieted, he rephrases it to: "I guess what I’m saying is humanity happens in the unspoken moments and I just feel badly for a generation that loses that." However, Mitch doesn't believe his actions are as deplorable or inexcusable, like those of the rapists and sexual abusers who were exposed in the first wave of #MeToo.
Are the showrunners actually saying the #MeToo charges in the second wave are not as serious as those from the first — or are they simply playing devil's advocate to provoke a debate?
For those questioning the showrunners' motives, they don't exactly let men like Mitch off the hook but they sure are navigating some murky gray areas that will challenge viewers to question their reactions to Carell's character. But if they really do want to dissect the cultural reckoning that is #MeToo, they must consider more carefully on how they tell their story. This will make it easier to judge the show on its own merit, rather than the merit of the movement it is inspired from.
However, The Morning Show not only delves into the fate of a man outed by #MeToo, it also tells a more important one about two women navigating the workplace in its aftermath. Although the show is hosted by two female news anchors, it is still the men who control everything. As Alex says, "Sometimes, women can't ask for control. So, they have to take it" — and the show works best when they do.
The Morning Show will premiere on Apple TV+ on 1 November. Viewers can watch it on the Apple TV app or online at tv.apple.com.
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