First look TV review: The Morning Show Season 2
Written by Belinda
Rating Apple’s thrillingly timely and complex study of complicity and compromise is one of the year’s boldest TV shows.
It’s been almost two years since Apple TV+ launched with the debut of The Morning Show, its flagship drama boasting some serious star power in the form of Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. The result was overlooked by almost everyone, as the series’ decision to tell the story of a morning news show mired in scandal due to allegations of sexual harassment surrounding one of its presenters proved to be a tough sell. But that’s not due to a lack of quality. Rather, it’s the show’s pursuit of it: The Morning Show’s strength is its willingness to be complex and messy, wading into difficult waters without feeling the need to make a splash by taking a simplistic stance. Fast forward to its second season, and the show’s not only sticking to its guns, its doubling down on that approach to thrilling effect.
Season 2 picks up months after the Season 1 finale, which saw The Morning Show’s veteran presenter Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and boisterous new hire Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) speak out live on camera about the toxic work environment at their network, UBA, which enabled the dismissed TV presenter Mitch (Steve Carell), who was BFFs with Alex and hid a queasy exploitative streak underneath his good-guy persona. Now, Alex has departed the network and is off writing her memoirs, while Bradley is still grinding it out day to day, with a new co-host, Eric (Hasan Minhaj), but desperate to transfer to the evening news and tackle some serious primetime topics. At the top of the tree is Cory (Billy Crudup), the news chief who almost got fired before being rapidly promoted to CEO, while Karen Pittman’s dogged, talented Mia takes on the producing mantle once shouldered by Mark Duplass’ world-weary Chip, and Cory’s old role is filled by Stella (the phenomenal Greta Lee).
With ratings slumping, the pressure is on for the morning programme to find a way to rejuvenate itself. Should they lean into the fluffy, feel-good vibe, as Bradley and Eric host the 2019/2020 New Year’s Eve TV celebrations? Bring back Alex to capitalise on the scandal surrounding their off-message on-air stunt? Or should they go serious and cover the reports of this new coronavirus coming out of China?
A TV exploring workplace politics, abuse of power and endemic sexism within the media also tackling the coronavirus pandemic? If that sounds like The Morning Show taking on too much, you’d be right, but this is where the series operates at its best – in pulling off balancing acts that shouldn’t work and embracing the chaos that ensues. Because in an age where facts are boiled down into sensationalist, clickbaiting stories, The Morning Show acknowledges the grey areas that exist behind headlines – while the characters are all racing to produce a programme that ostensibly presents truth to its audience, their efforts are constantly undermined by the fact that things aren’t that straightforward.
That’s partly because each character has their own motivations at play. Billy Crudup remains magnetic as Cory, a showboating suit-wearer who’s part businessman and part salesman, never missing a chance to grandstand with an over-the-top speech – and most of the time believing his own spiel. He’s trying to steer the network through the aftermath of Mitch, while also attempting to boost ratings and keep everyone calm. But he’s also alway trying to save his own skin – and while it looks like Bradley played a big role in keeping his job at UBA, there’s no escaping the fact that he’s capable of his own backroom deals to keep him in the building.
That self-serving streak is found in every character we meet, from Daniel (the fantastic Desea Terry), a gay, Black anchor who is willing to go to China in order to get some screentime with gravitas and isn’t above singing on camera if it’ll get him some attention, to Mia, who wants to support Daniel in a mostly white workplace, but also doesn’t want to rock the boat to the point where it’d jeopardise her own position. It’s the way The Morning Show uses its situations to open up that kind of subtle consideration of identity and racial discrimination that makes it such an interesting watch – Greta Lee’s no-nonsense, intelligent outsider steals every scene with her drive to change things while also facing pressure to follow her orders from upstairs. Is she really hired for who she is, or is she just a diversity hire?
The star attraction, though, is the double-act of Aniston and Witherspoon, and they’re doing career-best work as a dynamic duo whose dynamic is anything but healthy. They’re on juxtaposed trajectories, as Alex tries to move from her tainted past, caught up in blindly enabling Mitch’s behaviour, to something more virtuous and honest, but can’t leave behind speculation about her knowledge of what was going on – while she has her own book coming out, another book (from Marcia Gay Harden’s reporter, Maggie) is also on the way telling another account of events. Aniston’s never been better than her turn her, able to go from righteous to wrong-headed in an instant, at once accomplished and confident and entirely insecure. Bradley, meanwhile, is a ferociously crusading reporter with ideals and morals that can send her flying off the handle – but the longer she stays in the industry, the more corrupted she becomes, as her own ambitions and needs require compromises. The introduction of Julianna Margulies as a veteran interviewer who gets under Bradley’s skin only reinforces the dilemma of choosing between personal and professional goals, between being yourself and being what you need to be to succeed in an unequal industry.
As for Steve Carell’s Mitch, he’s off in Italy trying to quietly disappear, but can’t escape public awareness of who he is or what he did. Having him in the show at all might seem like a mistake, but it’s at the heart of what makes The Morning Show tick: the writers allow for multifaceted people on all sides of the situation. Is Mitch worthy of redemption? What do want to see him do? These are difficult questions the programme asks us, rather than try to answer them on our behalf. Even another cancel-cultured-themed subplot involving Nestor Carbonell’s weatherman Yanko refuses to allow an easy solution to what appears to be a clear-cut foul on his part.
Where another series would take a stance and use that to dictate its storylines, the result n ensemble piece fuelled by character – and what becomes clear the longer the show goes on is that every person is complicit in what’s happened to different degrees. What unfolds each week are therefore the consequences of their past decisions, both for themselves and for their friends and colleagues. Like the stylishly vague opening titles – which could represent the struggle for honesty, the persistence of corruption or the ongoing push against the prejudiced tide – there’s ambiguity at play that’s as dizzying as it is dazzling. There aren’t many TV shows trying to take on so many issues all at once – there are even fewer TV shows that can pull it off.