I held off reading reviews of The Morning Show, Apple TV+’s first offering and cornerstone for its new streaming service, wanting to view the show “fresh.” The series was inspired by Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV. Early promos seemed to portray the series as a cat fight between two women – Alex Levy played by Jennifer Aniston and Bradley Jackson played by Reese Witherspoon – for the top anchor spot on a network morning show.
In normal times, that peek behind behind the scenes for the power plays that go on might have made for another Network, the 1976 film, or HBO’s The Newsroom. Yet as the #metoo movement gained momentum, reality became more powerful than fiction. Matt Lauer, the longtime host of NBC’s The Today Show, was fired after serious allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. According to press reports, as the Lauer story unfolded, The Morning Show hit restart and tried to keep up with the news. The result is a fascinating and upsetting (there are cautions about content before several episodes for anyone who might be traumatized by viewing a sexual assault) look at the aftermath of a corporate tsunami.
In November, 2017, both Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer were ousted by their networks. On November 21, Nora O’Donnell and Gayle King opened the CBS Morning Show by announcing Rose’s firing, calling his behavior “wrong” and “horrible.” Eight days later, Samantha Guthrie and Hoda Kotb went through the same exercise on The Today Show, saying they were still trying to process what Lauer had done.
Morning TV is an advertising cash cow for the networks, made even more important because NBC, ABC, and CBS are struggling to keep viewers for their nightly lineups with so much competition from streaming services like Network and Amazon Prime. Rose and Lauer were the alpha males for these morning programs, their experience and gravitas serving as the central point for each broadcast.
Watching these four women attempt to grapple with seeing someone they had regarded as a colleague and friend outed for such reprehensible behavior was certainly dramatic television. But how many of us listened to what they said and wondered: how could they not have known what was going on? Sharing an anchor desk for years with someone should have provided some insight about what happened behind closed doors in the off hours. Anyone who has worked in a team environment, one that is high pressure, knows that secrets are shared and gossip is constant. What was whispered as people lingered in the coffee room? Or shared a drink after work? And there were other women who worked with both Rose and Lauer. What about Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira who shared the anchor desk with Lauer?
The ten episodes of The Morning Show present a compelling story arc. Aniston’s Levy has been the queen of morning TV for decades, her partnership and on air chemistry with Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) helping to guarantee her many more years on the show. Or so she was led to believe. In reality, the network brass were looking for her replacement. But before that can happen, the New York Times publishes a scathing report about Kessler’s transgressions and the fictional network UBA fires him. Levy becomes the survivor, yet UBA’s president, Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin), still wants Levy gone and refuses to sign off on her new contract. Levy wants co-host approval, and when Micklen balks, she out maneuvers him by announcing her new co-host while accepting an honor from a journalism organization. Bradley Jackson, a field reporter in West Virginia, was brought to the attention of UBA executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) after her rant against a coal miner went viral. A recent arrival to news from the network’s entertainment division, Ellison wants to jazz up The Morning Show and he believes Bradley can supply that energy.
Kessler, however, is not ready to move on. As his professional and personal life crumbles around him, he comes up with a scheme to rescue his career or at least to save his reputation – proving that others at the network were complicit in covering up his affairs and assaults. A key encounter centers on one of the network bookers, Hannah Shoenfeld (a remarkable Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who suffers one of Kessler’s assaults while the two are covering the Las Vegas shootings. (These are the scenes viewers may have trouble watching.) After Hannah tries to report what happened to Micklen, he offers her a promotion to guarantee her silence. Hannah becomes the pawn in everyone’s game and suffers from the outcome.
Aniston is often underrated as an actress because her roles, whether in Friends or in film comedies like Horrible Bosses, don’t really tap into her talents. As Levy she is flat out terrific and may win new fans. She taps into Levy’s fears of losing the anchor job, which not only gives her an incredible platform but has made her very wealthy. And breaking up with Kessler is harder than she thought. While she is angry at him for placing the show in jeopardy, she has trouble envisioning a future without him. When she’s forced to examine – really examine – what she knew when, it’s a painful exercise.
Witherspoon’s Bradley seems out of her depth at times. But as the series continues she makes the role of outsider work for her. Not having sought the co-anchor job, she doesn’t care if she loses it and becomes obsessed with doing the right thing.
Carell’s Kessler is at times a father figure (one reason Hannah agrees to go to his hotel room, because she views him as a mentor), at other times like the predator he is. His pain and anger is palpable in scenes where he tires to hold on to his family and some of his friends. With a swanky New York penthouse and a Hamptons home, he has a lot to lose. That he appears sincere when he’s expressing his innocence, just makes his actions even more deplorable. But his tears are crocodile ones and he seems unimpressed with the chaos he has left behind. He’s a narcissist through and through and Carell is adept at portraying him as such.
Crudup’s Ellison almost seems like a cartoon character at times, grinning, delivering one-liners, and never getting ruffled, even when Micklen threatens his job. Mark Duplass plays Charlie “Chip” Black, the executive producer of The Morning Show who tries to do the right thing that ultimately places himself and his assistant, Claire (Bel Powley) in a precarious position. Karen Pittman as Mia, a show producer, having an affair with the show’s weatherman, Yanko Flores (Néstor Carbonell), present another aspect of the#metoo movement, whether having an affair, even if consensual, can lead to issues down the road.
Top photo courtesy of Apple TV+