Set at a fictional TV network beset by #MeToo scandals and an overabundance of egos and corporate jousting, “The Morning Show” could have been a fascinating look at how the TV sausage is made. But Season 2 of the Apple TV+ drama, starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, is as much of a mess — if not more so — than it was in Season 1.
When we last saw frenemies and morning show co-hosts Alex (Aniston) and Bradley (Witherspoon), they had gone off script, live on air, to expose the rot at their television network that had long allowed and protected a culture of sexual harassment. The cold open of Season 2 picks up moments later and it’s pandemonium and Alex is whisked away by her entourage. “Keep your phone on,” she tells Bradley as she’s being hustled out of the building: “I’ll call you.” Bradley just stands there, slackjawed.
What happens next? What are the costs of speaking truth to power? Because there are always costs. That might have been a halfway decent starting point for the new 10-episode season, but showrunner Kerry Ehrin punts, jumping ahead eight months to when the dust has mostly settled. Bradley is now co-hosting the show with someone else and she’s transformed into the perky morning personality she used to disdain, while Alex is holed up in a lavish cabin in Maine writing her memoirs and feeling sorry for herself. But of course Alex is lured back (it’s unclear why she ever left) because she’s powerless against the words “You are the only thing that can save us” and “You have yet to do your greatest work!”
Is “The Morning Show” satirizing the fakery and self-important puffery of morning shows or is it buying into it? I can’t tell. Put another way, it’s a drama delivered with a wink, but what is it winking at exactly? I can never figure out where the show stands on anything and I wish it had a more gimlet-eyed energy about the infotainment of TV news.
In the wake of Alex and Bradley’s on-air bombshell, the mercurial head of news (and the company’s No. 1 agent of chaos, played with piquant flair by Billy Crudup) is fired — but no, wait, suddenly he’s now head of the network. Does any of this make sense without multiple viewings? Not for me, it didn’t.
Then there’s the Mitch factor: Alex’s long-standing co-host (Steve Carell), previously dumped from his job after an avalanche of allegations, has fled with his millions to a villa in Lake Como to lick his wounds. He has a whole arc this season, one that attempts to show the human side of a man who is grappling with … oh, forget it. I really don’t care about this character’s redemption or his humanity.
If any of this sounds compelling, then “The Morning Show” may be for you. I found it deeply, despondently boring, which is a strange thing to say about a season that has the bones of a nighttime soap, right down to a hotel hallway fracas between Alex and Bradley that seemed headed in the direction of Alexis-Krystle territory from the days of “Dynasty.”
But weirdly, “The Morning Show” doesn’t even fully commit to that, with Alex and Bradley separated on their own trajectories for much of the season. Considering their frisson is basically all that’s keeping this show afloat, that’s a curious choice. A bigger issue is that neither character is all that well defined anymore. Alex was once the veteran megastar — tightly wound and more insecure than not, but there was some savvy there. This season she lacks all of that, reduced to a series of tics and needs.
Bradley was originally introduced as the straight talking “serious” journalist who was out of her depth when it came to the gloss of network television; now that she has that part figured out, she’s just … there. She’s rattled when information about her private life hits the gossip columns, but the show also hints at another secret affair with someone above her at work, which neither she nor the boss see as potentially problematic for either of their careers. I don’t have a problem with Bradley being a hypocrite. Characters are allowed to be flawed. But the show itself doesn’t seem to grasp her hypocrisy or want to engage with it.The show doesn’t follow through and engage with anything that’s particularly challenging and ends up feeling intellectually disingenuous as a result.
Previously, the show had actually bothered to portray how lower level staffers were affected by all this meshugas (ahem, negatively) but none of that exists this time out. You can’t help but notice that the white characters on “The Morning Show” get fuller storylines (including the addition of an icy nighttime news magazine star played by a terrific Julianna Margulies). People of color on the show are given a handful of moments to express emotion (usually pained disgust), but their personal lives away from the office are a mystery. As characters, they exist to flesh out this world but they are never fleshed out themselves, from Karen Pittman’s unflappable executive producer (I want to know more about her and hear her in private conversations with people she trusts), Greta Lee’s wonderfully pinched head of news (a character who has no real authority despite her title, which feels like a real phenomenon women in her position might experience, but she never talks about it or even talks about, ya know, the news) and Desean Terry’s frustrated anchor (who has legitimate beefs, but again that’s all we see of him: perpetually hitting a brick wall at work). It kills me that Shari Belafonte’s floor director is reduced to a handful of lines that amount to, “Annnnd we’re out.”