You never get a second chance at a first impression. Apple TV+ launches its new streaming service on Friday with four original series, as well as documentary and children’s programming. The tech giant brings together some of the biggest names in entertainment in hopes that audiences will flock to see their favorite stars. Of the new programs, “The Morning Show” boasts the biggest cast. With Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell on posters, it sells itself. Unfortunately, these actors can’t save a flawed script. After passing through so many hands, the series never lands many of its complex ideas or messages. Some performances, like Aniston, deliver the soapy drama one hopes for. Yet, there’s too little magic in this overstuffed first offering.
It’s 3:30 am in the morning and producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) gets the dreaded call. Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), one-half of the hosts for “The Morning Show,” has been accused of sexual misconduct by former employees of the show. His co-host, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), gets the same call moments later, already midway through her morning routine. Levy enters work in a flurry of competing thoughts. She worries about what the controversy could do to her show. However, this also makes her the indispensable rock of the project. Her sights turn towards being able to control both her narrative and the choice of a replacement of Mitch. In Hollywood, network executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) also sees this as an opportunity for “The Morning Show” to rebrand, though that differs quite a bit from Alex’s visions of her show.
Far from the ivory towers of “The Morning Show” New York set, spitfire and apolitical ace reporter Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) heads to a coal protest in West Virginia. Reese Witherspoon rips into the character of Bradley Jackson with the precision and subtlety of a chainsaw. Her “tell me five facts about coal” viral video demonstrates the character’s righteous indignation. Yet, Witherspoon never builds a character beneath her rage. “We have 48 hours to define the character of Bradley Jackson,” says Crudup’s Cory as he gives Bradley a makeover. Unfortunately, after three hour-long episodes, the writers have failed at this goal.
Over her incredible career, she has succeeded in revealing the contradictions and shades within her characters. She brings forth the savvy and strength beneath Elle Woods’ unflappable perk. On “Big Little Lies,” she exposes Madeline’s vulnerability underneath her bravado. Here, Bradley Jackson is all bark with no opportunity to show bite. Against Aniston’s Alex, she represents the transparent “truth-teller” lacking in this era of fake news. However, what is Bradley’s truth and what are her goals? Other than a shoehorned backstory around her drug-addicted brother, Bradley exists in another world as a “manic pixie dream reporter” whose every line registers as a barn-burning declaration.
Of the three powerhouse veterans, Aniston emerges the clear victor after three episodes. Within moments, she perfectly defines who Alex Levy is and what the news means to her. At her heart, Alex is a storyteller. Like any good storyteller, Alex thrives on control. Aniston magnificently weaves between calculating and sincere, as she works out how this conflict serves her. Having clawed her way up in a male dominated industry, she knows nothing about her job is safe or guaranteed. This guarded nature never comes across as obtuse. Aniston allows you to see just enough to understand her moves as she makes them. In a pilot so slow and muddled, Aniston’s on-air address represents the only time the episode comes alive. She feels like someone who could command a morning news show.
In many ways, the three hour long episodes of “The Morning Show” resemble a three-hour pilot. Created by Jay Carson but developed by Kerry Ehrin, the complicated origins shine through in the pacing. So many scenes merely add exposition or additional detail that belong in a show bible, rather than literalizes in a scene. The show spends tons of time giving character introductions to a cast that includes Jack Davenport, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bel Powley, Karen Pittman, Desean Terry, Ian Gomez, Adina Porter and many more. Other than introductions, the show never follows up and gives them real characters to play. It spends more time loading the frame with famous people than coming up with a definitive perspective or point of view. This seems extra dangerous when dealing with a hot button issue like the #metoo movement.
As the disgraced Mitch Kessler, Steve Carell’s natural charisma gets mishandled. It plays his anger and antics as either a cartoon man-tantrum or an example of how “gotcha journalism” destroyed a great man. A performance like Carell’s needs a steady hand to guide it within the larger narrative. Instead, it becomes a rancid thread that sticks out like a tonal sore thumb. The more the show tries to excuse his behavior, the murkier the show’s motives appear.
One extended scene between Steve Carell and Mark Duplass finds the two men commiserating about the failings of the #metoo movement. Carell’s Mitch likens it to McCarthyism. In response, Duplass’ Charlie admits that people have moved too quickly to take down men for their behavior. “What are you going to do when they come for the everyday, run of the mill, creep?” Mitch asks as if to lure another man into his Men’s Rights Activist propaganda. This comes minutes after Mitch gives an impassioned monologue about the injustices of powerful men being forced to sign morality clauses. All this comes because his accountant advises he sell his second and third homes in the Hamptons and Aspen.
Mitch never gets framed as a complete villain. He’s “a complicated man” who “made a mistake” and “is being judged too harshly.” The conversation never interrogates his actions. Instead, it pits him against other possibly “worse” men (like Martin Short as a Woody Allen-esque director). It merely asks us to take a step back and ask, “Are we treating rich, powerful men who abuse their power too badly?” Maybe there are two types of men, the predatory and the criminal. Mitch poses that the metoo movement was right to “cancel” the criminal men. However, they went too far when they started going after the “harmlessly” predatory men. The framing pushes the audience towards aligning with Mitch’s assertions. At best, this may be a misguided reading that comes from the holes in the writing. At worst, making this point is irresponsible.
Over three episodes, we get very few moments of our leading ladies sharing the screen together. “The Morning Show” wants to be this glitzy, expensive, peak-TV vehicle for some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Yet, it keeps all these stars apart from one another, depriving them of a scene partner equal to their talents. It makes sense that Apple would want to launch with a star studded soap that would get headlines and excitement. While the writing never connects, the show boasts an impressive look and design. Director Mimi Leder lends a strong, visual eye to the pilot that gives it the sheen a show of its budget should have. Unfortunately, a strong directorial eye is not enough to save it. “The Morning Show” bungles its perspective, undercuts the talent involved and just stops being fun very early on.