The Morning Show returns for more self-important nonsense

The Morning Show

The third season of Apple TV’s daytime news series makes for some excellent hate-watching, & not much else.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Aaron Sorkin learned the hard way that no one takes TV as seriously as TV people. When he followed up his critically acclaimed The West Wing, a show about the inner workings of the White House, with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip he discovered that you can’t treat everything with the gravity of a cabinet meeting and the wit of a theater major who gets straight Bs. His backstage drama about a fake sketch show pleased no one. When he tried to course correct with The Newsroom he tried to portray the American news media out to be brave warriors for the cause of truth. Both shows have lived rich second lives as meme generators about what Andrew Sarris would call “strained seriousness.”

Having learned nothing from his example, Apple TV+ debuted The Morning Show in 2019, from one-time political consultant Jay Carson and TV veteran Kerry Ehrin, framing it as a cancel culture/#MeToo drama and quickly swallowing its own tongue. The show found star anchor Steve Carrell accused of sexual assault and denying it until his victim killed herself. The second season found him wallowing in splendor in Italy until he nobly decides to kill himself. It’s appalling stuff, a complete fumble of the show’s premise. All the while his former co-anchor Jennifer Aniston and new hire Reese Witherspoon try to navigate their careers post-accusations, thanks and no thanks to executives and board members played variously by Billy Crudup, Greta Lee, Holland Taylor, and in the new season a very welcome Stephen Fry.

While the show has moments of fleeting dramatic interest, thanks to the best members of the cast, its insistence that the lives of TV anchors is the most important subject in the world (daytime television puff piece news anchors no less) has kept the show from ever reaching whatever its version of its full potential might look like. What in practice the show largely consists of is people screaming and swearing at each other about the fate of a TV network. The irony of this running on a streamer never reached the writers, though they did take their fake channel, UBA, to streaming at the end of season 2.

Season three finds a new adversary in the form of Jon Hamm’s Paul Marks, a slick, handsome billionaire (can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one of those, can ya?) who plays tug of war with Cory Ellison (Crudup) and Alex Levy (Aniston) with regards to his plans to buy UBA, the network that hosts the titular morning show. It eventually circles back around to a plot device right out of the first season’s #metoo arc, which is endemic of the writers’ difficulty in coming up with organic directions for the show to travel.

The Morning Show
The Morning Show (Apple TV+)

The bulk of the drama comes from heel turns and dime-drop mentality changes that serve no greater purpose than keeping the plot grinding. Levy’s attitude toward Marks changes every episode for no particular reason other than if the deal can’t go through smoothly the show would be about six episodes shorter (not that I would have complained). Similarly Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) makes a number of convenient leaps in logic to separate herself from girlfriend Laura Peterson (Juliana Margulies), including accusing her of enjoying when poor white Southerners die of COVID-19. The less said about the show’s handling of January 6th and the overturning of Roe v. Wade (which in true Morning Show fashion is discovered by characters at a Valentino event) the better. These characters’ routine flaunting of their own established motivations makes them a rather unpleasant bunch to be around, not helped by the show’s directors constantly instructing their performers to behave as erratically and shrilly as possible.

Very few performers escape the push to the rafters. Billy Crudup is the standout, fighting for his life in the part of a shiftless middle manager in charge of a losing horse. I’ve written elsewhere that this is a knockout performance by an actor at the peak of his powers, and though he gets fewer showstopper moments this season than he did in the previous one, he makes the show worth watching as it chases its own tail elsewhere (a scene featuring his reaction to the worst Beach Boys song briefly lifts the show into the stratosphere). Greta Lee’s commitment to her character’s eccentricity is deeply watchable, though as always, the things she’s asked to do are never particularly interesting. True of all of the show’s shortcomings, this is all wrapped up in the fact that the show never demonstrates why its milieu is worthy of all this scrutiny.

Why does TV news matter in 2023? The show has many a platitude up its sleeve about telling the truth and holding people accountable, but we don’t see much of this (indeed Bradley Jackson alters the news to help herself) and furthermore don’t see what if any impact it has because, well, show me the news organization that isn’t extreme right that’s changing hearts and minds anymore. Never mind that all news migrated to social media years ago and if we know news anchors it’s because they all make cameos in movies and TV shows.

Because there’s just no proof in or out of the text that the important work depicted here is actually happening or actually important, many of the show’s attempts at progressivism feel like feints. An entire plot about an Olympic gold medalist-turned-morning show anchor’s (played by Nicole Behari) empowerment in the face of racism rears its head for a few minutes and then her characters all but vanishes from the show. It puts to lie the idea that the show was all that concerned with the issues the character was fighting for, to say nothing of mistaking that the set of a fake version of The Today Show is where work gets done that affects anybody. This is the pinnacle of Los Angeles’ definition of activism, where Jennifer Aniston’s libido and her admiration of her own body gets as much airtime as Black Lives Matter, January 6th, and COVID-19. The Morning Show has a lot on its mind but after three seasons very little to say.

The Morning Show Season 3 premieres today on Apple TV+.

The Morning Show Season 3 Trailer:

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist from Doylestown, PA. He is the creator of the long running series The Unloved at RogerEbert.com, and is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, Consequence of Sound, and Nylon Magazine.

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