A little ways into the third episode of The Morning Show, one of Apple TV+’s big plays for attention to its new streaming service, Jennifer Aniston’s morning TV anchor tries to explain to her daughter why she just did something that looks an awful lot like career suicide. “Sometimes,” she says softly, cradling her daughter’s face in her hands, “women can’t ask for control, so they have to take it.” It would be an awfully empowering moment—except the show is too clever to allow uplifting messaging to win the day without letting the contradictions of the real world intrude; minutes later, a couple of older white guys at the network are discussing what they’ll actually do with their rebellious anchor. That’s life, The Morning Show is continually reminding us—one step forward, two steps back, and about thirty steps in random side directions where you have no idea if you’re moving ahead or dropping behind.
Jennifer Aniston may not be the best thing about this latest high-profile entry in the streaming TV competition, but she seizes command of the entire enterprise anyway, walking away with it through the sheer grit of her performance, one of the finest she’s ever given. Her Alex Levy is vulnerable, calculating, naive, arrogant, controlling, and messy all at once, a wonderfully freewheeling bundle of emotions and ruthless business savvy that jockey for dominance in her personality and in her constantly changing expressions. Aniston has never had such a meaty, outsized character before, and she dives headlong into the larger-than-life nature of the role. If she actually seems slightly less magnetic when performing onscreen in the show-within-the-show, a bit less than the marvel of daytime TV everyone around her keeps insisting she is, it’s in part because she’s so fully alive and charismatic in every moment of Alex’s offscreen life. The smiling alter-ego version just can’t compete.
From the first notes of its lively, Saul Bass-like opening credits, The Morning Show is a hell of a lot of fun. It takes awhile to get going—the pilot is sprawling and overlong, struggling to launch the world of its narrative and introduce too many characters in too abrupt a manner—but once it does, it attains a kind of terminal velocity, as its protagonists and antagonists alike are swept up in a torrent of intrigue and office-politics gamesmanship. It features the kind of lacerating behind-the-scenes takedown of network TV that animated shows like Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, combined with the blustery hot-topic monologuing of Network (complete with a comparable “I’m mad as hell” speech for Reese Witherspoon), swirled together with a hearty dose of soapy interpersonal dramatics. As she did with Bates Motel, showrunner Kerry Ehrin masterfully manipulates pacing and tone to keep things moving without feeling rushed, and her scripts continue to strike the right balance of smarts and silliness, walking right up to the edge of soap-opera theatrics without tumbling over into them.
The inciting incident that launches the story is ripped straight from reality: The Morning Show, the flagship series for the fictional UBA network, goes into crisis mode when its co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is fired for sexual misconduct, sending his longtime co-host Alex (Aniston) into a panic about the future, and the show’s executive producer Charles Black (Mark Duplass) racing to find a replacement. (In case the analogy to Matt Lauer wasn’t already glaringly obvious, The Morning Show includes a scene showing how Kessler’s dressing room has a door that would automatically close and lock with the push of a button.) Meanwhile, Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) is a struggling reporter for a local conservative-leaning Virginian TV channel, whose abrasive personality has kept her from advancing. But when she loses her cool while covering a protest at a reopening coal plant, the ensuing video of her impassioned rant goes viral, landing her on the radar of The Morning Show’s talent booker Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and in the sights of UBA’s new network head Corey Ellison (Billy Crudup), who sees in Bradley a chance to shake up the stolid morning show format.
The entire cast is uniformly excellent, unsurprising given the level of talent involved. Duplass finds layers of nuance inside his exasperated showrunner, and while Witherspoon can play plucky underdog in her sleep at this point, she still manages to bring a strident unpredictability and edge to the character, leaving viewers uncertain if there’s a more manipulative eel hidden behind Bradley’s unvarnished veneer. Carell, for his part, brings the expected likability to Kessler’s disgraced anchor. In fact, that’s part of what could be controversial about the way the show chooses to unfold its #MeToo plot: Carell makes Mitch so grounded and likable (much in the way he’s humanized past asshole roles like Battle Of The Sexes’ Bobby Riggs), the first couple episodes flirt uncomfortably with the idea that he’s being unfairly demonized, before making a more damning assessment of his behavior. But in presenting this alpha male convinced he’s been wrongly persecuted, the show accurately depicts the reactionary ideologies lying below the surface of many a successful man who cluelessly thinks he just calls it like it is.
And speaking of assholes, the only thing keeping Aniston from being the best part of this series is Crudup. His smirking, supercilious exec instantly joins the pantheon of great love-to-hate villains, a Machiavellian schemer who knows exactly when to turn on the endearing charm and when to plunge the dagger into your backside. It doesn’t hurt that Ehrin gives him some truly choice lines: He closes out a speech exhorting the staff to remake The Morning Show with a plea for it to be “a feminine space… where women make the rules and give voice to the silenced. Speaking of which, nobody says a fucking word to the press.”
It takes a little time to find its whip-smart footing, with the pilot trying too hard to make everyone sound clever for clever’s sake and some hoary speechifying, but once it gets going, The Morning Show has the addictive rush of great old-school TV dramas. Funny, biting, and with just the right dose of trashy zing, this is high-gloss soap—Broadcast News meets L.A. Law. Bringing together this level of talent (both in front of and behind the camera, with superlative director Mimi Leder helming the majority of the first season) must have cost Apple a bundle, but when it results in television this appealing, it sure feels worth it.