‘The Morning Show’ Review: Apple TV+ Rises But Doesn’t Shine With Starry New Drama
Billy Crudup doesn’t have the biggest part in The Morning Show, but he has the most entertaining one. As Cory Ellison, a broadcast network entertainment president placed in charge of the news division despite a total lack of experience in the area, Crudup gets to smirk enigmatically as Cory’s underlings struggle to figure out his agenda. And he gets to recite lines like, “Chaos! It’s the new cocaine!” He’s fun to watch, even as it’s unclear — to the audience, and possibly to The Morning Show‘s creative team — whether he has the first clue what he’s doing, or just a surplus of confidence left over from his last job.
Because the series is very loosely based on CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s book Top of the Morning, Cory was almost certainly inspired by Jeff Zucker, who once upon a time took the opposite journey at NBC, where his work on Today eventually landed him the job overseeing Friends, Law & Order, et al. But the character can’t help feeling like a stand-in for the many Apple executives who are running one of the world’s most powerful technology companies without seeming to have any idea about how to make television shows.
The Morning Show isn’t terrible. It has several excellent performances beyond Crudup’s, including Jennifer Aniston as Alex Levy, a longtime morning TV anchor struggling in the aftermath of the #MeToo scandal that got her co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) fired; and Reese Witherspoon as Bradley Jackson, an outspoken vagabond reporter surprised to find herself in contention for Mitch’s old job. The direction by Mimi Leder (ER, The Leftovers) is confident and eye-catching, and the show’s exorbitant reported $15 million-per-episode budget is apparent not only in the presence of Aniston and Witherspoon (making $2 million per episode each) and Carell, but in the way most of the supporting roles are filled with actors who would otherwise be leads elsewhere, like Mark Duplass (as Alex’s executive producer Chip) or Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as talent booker Hannah).
But the series is a well-polished snore, a prime example of how throwing money at a problem — in this case, Apple’s need to dive into the streaming wars now that Netflix and company have killed off the revenue stream from buying individual TV episodes — isn’t inherently the best way to solve it.
The Morning Show is the crown jewel of the Nov. 1 launch of the new Apple TV+ subscription service. Apple is charging $5 a month for it (it’s free for a year if you’ve just bought a new phone, tablet, or laptop from them), which seems like a great price compared to Netflix or HBO NOW, until you realize that there’s no library of old content like those services have (or like Disney+ will when it launches on November 12th, for only a few dollars more than Apple). For now, the service is debuting with only a handful of originals, a few of which I’ll be reviewing separately later this week. Spoiler: They’re not particularly good, either, despite having impressive talent in front of and/or behind the camera. So you’re not paying much, but you’re also not getting much at this stage, in quantity or quality.
Trade and business reporters have done a more thorough accounting of the many bumps along the road in Apple’s attempt to conquer the TV business. Showrunners have been replaced (The Morning Show was developed by a different writer before Kerry Ehrin from Bates Motel took over), shows have been scuttled in development (or after being filmed) for not fitting Apple’s “aspirational” brand. Original programming bosses Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg are TV veterans (at Sony, they helped develop Breaking Bad), but many of the mistakes recounted in those stories and others suggest that Erlicht and Van Amburg’s superiors believe that expertise in the world of tech makes one equally qualified in the world of entertainment. That Netflix has been able to conquer the TV business doesn’t mean anyone can — especially since Netflix benefited from having a multiyear head start as much as, if not more than, from having great shows(*). Apple has huge market share with devices people stream things on, but if nobody likes their shows, it won’t matter how easy it is to access them. (Remember how excited no one with an iTunes account was when they got a free download of U2’s Songs of Innocence album?)
(*) The most telling recent public comment about Netflix came from their programming chief, Ted Sarandos, who complained that he loves HBO’s Succession but hates having to watch it weekly, which he wouldn’t do if it was even slightly less great. Without realizing it, he was confessing that many of Netflix’s series are Bs or B-minuses that get away with their narrative sludginess because all their episodes are available at once, when laziness can win out over critical thinking. Interestingly, the new players in the streaming game are moving away from the binge model. Apple TV+’s Dickinson will drop its whole first season on Nov. 1, but The Morning Show and Apple’s other series will do what Hulu often does: three episodes available on premiere date, and one week at a time after that.
The trade stories present various accounts of showrunners butting heads with Apple executives over what the brand shouldn’t be when it comes to television. But “aspirational” is too vague and useless a definition for what it should be, and The Morning Show provides no answers in that regard. At one point in the series premiere, Cory tries to unnerve Chip by suggesting, “It’s kind of funny, how the entire world of broadcast could just fall off a cliff in a few years.” Yet Apple is not only entering the TV business with a show about broadcast TV, but one that feels like it could have aired on broadcast TV anytime in the last 15 to 20 years, so long as the profanity got cut. More specifically, it’s Sorkin without Sorkin, lacking the snappy dialogue, the soaring rhetoric, or any attempt whatsoever to argue for why anyone should care about the future of this show-within-the-show(*).
(*) Then again, it’s hard to imagine a Sorkin show with two female leads, unless every episode was about the male supporting characters telling them why they’re wrong about things.
Star power can cover for this to a degree, though it’s much less of a novelty to have Witherspoon on TV now than it was when Big Little Lies debuted. This is Aniston’s first series since Friends, and a meaty dramatic showcase role at that. Alex spends much of the three episodes I’ve seen struggling to keep it together in the wake of Mitch’s firing and the threat it poses to both the show and her own career. She is anxious, physically and mentally exhausted — maybe the most effective thing that Leder and the actors get across is the simple toll of getting up early enough every day to work on a morning news program — and unsure of what to do and whom to trust. Aniston’s done fine dramatic work before in films like The Good Girl, but what’s notable here is how effectively she’s able to deploy some of that classic Rachel Green emotional messiness in a more dramatic context.
Among the many narrative problems, though, is that Ehrin chooses to begin the story with Mitch being fired. It’s a way to get to the actual story of the show more quickly — and even with that, Alex and Bradley don’t start working together until the third episode. But it means that the sense of loss Alex is struggling with seems largely abstract. We’re meant to feel it because of course Aniston and Carell would be a lot of fun together. But the value of their partnership doesn’t comes across any better than the value of the show-within-the-show itself.
Ehrin was reportedly brought in when the Matt Lauer scandal at NBC made everyone realize that this series would have to incorporate a #MeToo element. But Carell’s scenes play as obligatory — something the real-life Morning Show doesn’t want to deal with any more than people who work on the fictional one.
Witherspoon is effective playing to the flintier end of her range — when a producer tells Bradley to be more agreeable, she snaps back, “I am fuckin’ agreeable!” — though Bradley as a character is a muddle. She catches the network’s attention through a viral video where she lectures an ignorant bro at a coal mine protest, and it’s meant to be a big deal that no one can nail her down politically, even though everyone assumes she’s a conservative airhead fit for the “Eagle News audience.” But her ideology never comes across clearly, nor does any motivation beyond basic survival — which has already been presented as Alex’s deal.
Things perk up a bit in the third episode, when Bradley is finally working alongside the other characters. Witherspoon played Rachel’s younger sister in a few times on Friends, and she and Aniston still spark nicely off each other all these years later. But even at that stage of things, the central storylines are less compelling than what’s happening in the margins, like a glimpse of how Hannah is able to steal an important guest from a Morning Show rival.
Early in the second episode, Cory asks Bradley to tell him about herself. Self-deprecating, she suggests her story is similar to many others, but after she goes into the details, Cory smiles and replies, “Actually, I don’t think that’s the same as a lot of stories at all.”
The problem with The Morning Show — and with Apple TV+ as an endeavor at this early stage — is the opposite. It may think its stories are different than everyone else’s, but they aren’t. Nor are they told well enough to make up for that. The show, and the service, don’t need to exist, and thus far aren’t justifying that existence.