Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story
The enduring appeal of “The Morning Show” has become one of the great mysteries of modern television. The Apple TV+ series, which stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon as onetime hosts of a “Today”-like breakfast program titled “The Morning Show,” is simultaneously ripped from the headlines and bewildering to anyone who’s lived through them—in the span of a single episode, Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson chases a story about the erosion of abortion rights and is sent into space live on air. Among critics and casual viewers alike, the response has been one of bafflement and delight. “The morning show is absolutely unlike any tv show I’ve ever seen,” the novelist Rumaan Alam wrote, on X. “It’s like getting a lobotomy, it’s past camp, there should be academics working on this.” The third season, which concluded earlier this month, addressed the war in Ukraine (via a producer’s tortured love affair with a war photographer), the Capitol riot (in which a recurring character was an active participant), and the tyranny of tech billionaires (by having Aniston’s Alex Levy sleep with one of them). Needless to say, it’s already been renewed for a fourth.
“The Morning Show” was supposed to be more than a hate-watch. First announced in 2017, the glossy project—an adaptation of the media critic Brian Stelter’s best-selling book “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV”—was meant to lend Apple’s then-fledgling streaming service instant credibility, in the way that “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” had done for Netflix. (Personally, I had hoped for a sharp, self-aware exploration of the gilded cage of female likability—a subject that Aniston and Witherspoon, both erstwhile America’s Sweethearts, probably have a lot to say about.) Then NBC’s Matt Lauer was terminated amid accusations of sexual harassment and assault—he admitted to causing “damage” at the network but denied a rape allegation—and a new showrunner, Kerry Ehrin, refashioned “The Morning Show” into a #MeToo melodrama. Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), Alex’s beloved co-anchor, served as Lauer’s fictional counterpart; the series began with the exposure of his crimes, then traced the aftermath of his public dethroning. But the show’s efforts to grapple with these themes eventually tipped into absurdity, not least because of its seeming determination to rehabilitate Mitch. Toward the end of the second season, after spending months in self-imposed exile at an Italian villa, he killed himself by driving off a cliff. In that deeply unserious moment, the new “Morning Show” was born. Goodbye, well-intentioned disappointment. Hello, unexpectedly riveting perversion of endless potential.
Alam is right that “The Morning Show” is a unique creation: an objectively bad show that’s somehow also must-watch television. If it falls short of the elevated fare it was meant to be, it owes its appeal to a genre the golden age forgot. The landscape of prestige TV is littered with gritty fantasy series, antihero sagas, and melancholy comedies—but the auteurs of the era have largely left the melodrama untouched. Attempts to repurpose its signature pleasures—namely soapy plotting and immoderate emotionality—have turned out sludgy and self-serious (“Damages,” “Bloodline”) or, once the novelty wears off, numbingly repetitive (“Scandal”).
Enter “The Morning Show,” whose heightened characters and approach to very recent history betray its true lineage. Where “The Newsroom,” on HBO, used hindsight for point-scoring and piety—Aaron Sorkin’s avatar routinely made the “right” calls where his real-world counterparts had failed—and “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” on CBS and Paramount+, respectively, merged the topical and the theatrical to reflect the absurdities of the present moment, “The Morning Show” mines current events almost exclusively for drama. They’re deployed most often as a source of personal or professional tension—Alex bristles when the in-universe news of her affair with the billionaire Paul Marks (Jon Hamm) eclipses the fall of Roe v. Wade, but the series itself is, naturally, more concerned with the former. To be so close and yet so far from our own world lands us in an emotional and narrative uncanny valley.
The use of politics as set dressing has its drawbacks. The show is at its most vexingly coy when it declines to nail down queer West Virginian Bradley’s position on the ideological spectrum, and when it skirts the implications of her brother Hal’s involvement in the Capitol insurrection, which matters only to the extent that it threatens her job and his ability to be present as a father. Whether he believes her to be another venal élitist peddling lies about the outcome of the 2020 election never comes up. But it is perhaps that degree of remove from reality that’s proved so compelling, even as the writers make choices that defy basic storytelling logic. The unlikely friendship between the rough-hewn, perpetually indignant Bradley and the polished, cynical veteran Alex is meant to be the heart of the show—so of course they’re separated for most of the third season, with Alex now the host of a streaming series called “Alex Unfiltered” and Bradley the face of the network’s evening news. Lurching wildly in the quality of its story lines and its treatment of serious issues, “The Morning Show” makes for a uniquely destabilizing viewing experience. From scene to scene, I find myself thinking about it the way one might about an erratic boyfriend: Are things good now? Is this bad patch worth pushing through? Am I an idiot for subjecting myself to this? I’ve become as engrossed by these questions as I am by anything onscreen, and I have a different answer every ten minutes. The January 6th subplot had me howling with incredulousness, then giddily enraptured.
Despite, or maybe because of all this, the show is a hit. It’s one of the only Apple TV+ series to crack the Nielsen Top Ten—a success aided, no doubt, by the millions lavished on every frame. Aniston and Witherspoon don’t come cheap, and the gleaming cinematography lends an enviable lustre to both the Gen X cast members and the many elaborate sets. When Bradley briefly leaves Earth in a rocket ship—accompanied by her boss, Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), the head of the network, and Paul, who’s using the suborbital trip as free advertisement for his space-travel firm—and all three actors float about in microgravity, the streamer seems to be showing off.
As in any good soap opera, the characters themselves are the reason to keep watching, and their consistently questionable choices have taken on genuine thematic weight: the series has become a meditation on the price of survival. Bradley, who started off as an unrelenting idealist, has since been compromised by her own ambitions, having engaged in a coverup to preserve her career even at the cost of her relationship and her values. Alex, despite having rebranded after the scandal surrounding Mitch, is still plagued by an instinct to adjoin herself to a powerful man—first Cory, then Paul—instead of forging her own path. Aniston’s portrayal of a woman who’s only ever gained power by appeasing various male executives has been the best performance of her career.
Cory, too, has always felt one wrong move away from catastrophic ruin. His decisions tend to come as grenades, and the writers evidently relish penning his lines of grandiose thunder; Crudup, who plays him with a rictus grin rivalling that of the Joker, is regularly given pronouncements such as “I want death in the afternoon!” and “Alex Levy is Lazarus, and that makes me Jesus, except I’m in more houses seven days a week.” But the third season rounds him out with an embittered, mercurial mother (Lindsay Duncan, in a very Lindsay Duncan role) who appears to be both the root and the first victim of his transactional world view. Most satisfyingly, Cory develops a genuine protectiveness toward his staff once he finally accepts that he can’t be a chaos agent and an effective leader at the same time. He still irritates the people around him as often as he charms them, but the sheer volume of quips per minute and the absolute conviction with which they’re delivered are undeniable. He thrives in self-made bedlam; whatever the circumstances, he manages to carry off a heady mix of self-indulgence and self-importance. In other words, he’s prime “Morning Show” material. ♦