I went into The Morning Show (opens in new tab) expecting I would hate it. Shockingly, I left a screening of the first two episodes wanting to see the third.
The Morning Show — one of the tent-pole shows of Apple TV Plus (opens in new tab) — is going to get some chatter going, as it takes the #MeToo conversation happening right now and presents it in a series of 10 hour-long episodes of a TV drama. But is it enough to propel Apple's service to compete with the monolithic Disney Plus (opens in new tab)? I'm not sure.
However, after getting an early look at The Morning Show, I'm ready to say that co-producers Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon have built a show worth some attention.
Of course, know that beyond this point lie spoilers. I'll try and keep them to a minimum, but it's hard to talk about this show without explaining some of the story beats that have been missing from promotion.
A strong cast navigates a morning zoo
While I've got questions about what The Morning Show's trying to do, I can't help but praise Jennifer Aniston's work here, making Alex Levy — one of those smiling morning talk show show personalities you see on billboard (if not watch on a daily basis) relatable.
Aniston's ever-evolving physical reactions to the big news of the first episode — her co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell) is terminated from his job due to multiple accusations of sexual misconduct — show a human processing a whole month of emotions in a day or two's worth of time. She moves between shock, grief, anxiety and "I need a drink" with a natural progression that realizes Levy into a complete portrait.
While Steve Carell and Reese Witherspoon are the other top-billed characters, Mark Duplass (The League, The Mindy Project) is the other standout of the series, as he plays The Morning Show's exec. producer "Chip" Black. As the middle-man between the stars and the execs, Duplass' character might know more than the on-air talent, but he's still getting his fair share of surprises, thanks to upper management.
Duplass is known for imbuing characters with an entertaining anxious energy, and it constantly works to solid effect, particularly when he folds a makeshift sandwich into its smallest form to condense a lunch break into a cigarette break's time.
I've also got nothing but positive things to say about Reese Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson. The character feels like familiar enough territory for Witherspoon, with a strong, bold voice and a lack of damns to give about how colleagues feel about her. It's not too rooted in the past, though, as the character's verbiage feels modern enough and her delivery and composure during verbal jousts is top-notch, delivering some of the best moments of the early episodes.
The show's supporting roles show a strong eye in the casting department, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bel Powley and Ian Gomez offering early standout moments.
What kind of news and politics show is this?
The Morning Show, in its early episodes, is trying to thread the needle between famous shows and movies about news, taking enough from the ones we've loved (Network) and trying to avoid the pratfalls of the ones that became self-satire (The Newsroom).
It's mostly successful in this endeavor, putting most of its serious gravitas on the character relationships instead of harping too loud about this or that political issue. An early, and notably flustered, monologue from Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) walks right up to the point of the still-cringeworthy monologue in The Newsroom's pilot episode that saw Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) weigh the show down with his own bluster.
Yes, that speech is also The Morning Show's attempt to have its own version of Network's "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" speech, and it avoids dooming the show by being short enough to allow audiences to move on from it soon.
Further repetition, as the speech goes viral, even allows audiences to laugh a little, as Witherspoon's imbuing the work with a bit of her performance as Tracy Flick (Election) and a bit of Howard Dean's famous career-ending scream.
My biggest concern: What's the message?
So, to the elephant in the review: Steve Carell as Mitch Kessler, who left me as skeptical as I was entertained. I don't need to name the names he might be representing — he makes a joke about an be-fowled office plant, to make sure we remember a certain NBC news man's downfall — because he's supposed to be similar, but different to every high profile man accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Watching Carell deliver a character that's both blind to his own faults and likable, it was clear why he was cast. The show is trying to humanize the accused, and does so to a relatively strong degree, which will likely prove unsettling to some.
Two episodes in, we're only given enough of the story to know that Kessler screwed up, but to see that the show has little interest in condemning him. All the while — as it's building sympathy for its predator — we start to see him as the lesser of a few evils, with network executives becoming the true baddies of the show, a decision that feels a little rote.
During the premiere, I began wondering about how The Morning Show will land its first 10-episode run (it's reportedly re-signed for a second season). I felt as if I was jabbing a fork at a flaky pastry — wondering about its structure, and what's in there — my biggest doubts flooded in.
I don't see a thoroughly modern (and controversial) topic, such as The Morning Show digging into the #MeToo moment, in the Disney Plus lineup. But just because Apple's got a show that will stand out doesn't mean it's great.
Does The Morning Show have a message, or a conclusion in mind? While it's entertaining in the short-term, thanks to great acting, this series needs to prove that it deserved to take on a giant, important topic, and not shy away in the end.
To hear about episode 3 of The Morning Show, check out my full Apple TV Plus review (opens in new tab).