Created by Jay Carson
Developed by Kerry Ehrin
Original Air Date: November 1st 2019-December 20th 2019
‘America loves me, and therefore I own America,’ declares Jennifer Aniston’s character Alex during a particularly tense moment in the third episode of The Morning Show.
It’s a line that really shouldn’t work. It’s grandiose, a bit over the top, overwrought even, and comes during a particularly heightened moment of drama, but it can’t help but put a smile on your face for just how much Aniston and the series commits to it.
The first of Apple TV’s onslaught of original productions with which to claim a stake in the streaming wars, on paper The Morning Show looks like a typical series with which to launch a streaming service; it’s simultaneously glossy and classy, peppered with an A-list cast, has big themes and ideas to work with, and every episode runs for a little over an hour.
If you were to ask a computer to come up with a peak-TV series with which to launch a streaming service into an increasing busy market, then The Morning Show is the series that you would most likely end up with.
It is also a series that positively bleeds television. From the setting, to the casting, and the dialogue, you can pinpoint the influence of Network, Broadcast News and The Newsroom in every pore of the writing, direction, and production values, eventually coming across as something that feels like it’s blended Paddy Chayefsky, Aaron Sorkin and even Robert and Michelle King of The Good Wife and The Good Fight fame. The classy gloss of proceedings cannot help but put you in mind of those two shows and that Julianna Margulies will be joining the cast in season two seems appropriate.
The moment Aniston’s character berates a room full of network executives with her ‘this is the rules, this is how it is’ moment even reverse plays a famous moment from Network, only this time the tables are turned and it’s the talent telling the head of the network how the world, or in this case America, works.
The casting of Aniston and Carell in pivotal lead roles as the ‘mother and father of America’s morning’ also feels like it’s an acknowledgment of their own parts in the history of television. Having both previously starred in some of America’s biggest comedy series, series that are still constantly repeated on television and available to stream to considerably large audiences in a sea of never ending original content, it’s canny of the series to cast two of the television world’s biggest stars as essentially two of the television world’s biggest stars.
It works wonders, but it also allows The Morning Show to go to town in subverting the image that audiences have of these two from not only their most famous roles, but in the roles they have played since. Carell, of course, has done somewhat of a good job of trying to get away from the Michael Scott persona with roles in more challenging fare such as Foxcatcher and The Big Short. There has always been the possibility for that cringe persona that he perfected over his seven season stint on The Office to twist into something darker and meaner and some of his post-Office roles have played to that, but perhaps none more devastating than what he does here.
A flashback heavy episode towards the end of the season portrays the lovable nature that his character of Mitch Kessler laid down on-screen to easy effect, and the easy going chemistry he shared with Aniston’s Alex during the show’s heyday, but the series’ unflinching portrayal of his predatory behaviour is grim stuff and after several episodes of showing the character fighting his allegations and trying to prove that he is ‘different’ to other men that have been accused (including a cast-against-type Martin Short chillingly playing a comedian friend of the character), the series basically calls bulls**t to that and disturbingly shows that he really isn’t any different at all.
While Carell’s presence dips in and out of the series, his character is not the main drive of the show. That honour goes to Aniston and Wetherspoon. Even the casting of the latter plays into the series’ acknowledgment of the television world outside its fictional sphere; after all, the two played siblings on Friends, Witherspoon having been one of the series’ frequent big name guest star castings during its ten year run on the air.
Witherspoon is great as Bradley Jackson, that goes without saying, in a role that she really can play in her sleep, that she commits to wholeheartedly and the complex partnership that she develops with Alex is one of the highlights of the story, but it’s Aniston who is the revelation of the main trio here.
Frequently labelled as ‘America’s Sweetheart’ during her decade-long run playing Rachel Greene and the onslaught of romantic comedies that she appeared in as result, The Morning Show’s biggest strengths come from watching Aniston playing a character who is essentially an American Sweetheart in wolf’s clothing.
The series plays merry hell with the audience’s feelings towards her throughout all ten episodes, running the gamut from sympathetic to manipulative, to naivety and sometimes to something bordering on anti-heroic. It ends up being something of a redemption arc for the character; her years of having an idea of the behaviour of her co-anchor eventually leading her to confess all on the air during an incredibly intense final episode that plays once again within the realm of Network, this is perhaps Aniston’s best work in years, mainly because it allows her to touch base with a character that is none more Aniston herself but with layers of darker difficulties to contend with.
In a more comedic, less intense series, one without the darker themes at play here, characters like Alex or Bradley could have so easily been the stars of a rom-com starring either one of the actresses during the 2000s. The television production setting has a workplace comedy vibe, one similar to the Mindy Kaling-scripted Late Night, the writer and actress even appearing here as a recurring guest character who works for a rival series.
Remarkably, this isn’t a light, frivolous glossy comedy. There is genuine fire and anger in its belly that only grows and grows, eventually throwing itself into a dramatic conclusion that doesn’t flinch away from themes of responsibility and the devastating effects that predatory behaviour can have. While Aniston, Carell and Witherspoon are emblazoned on the poster, the most devastating work of the core cast comes from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose presence becomes more pivotal in the later episodes and who we experience the toxicity of this particular work environment through to a chilling and heartbreaking effect.
The series doesn’t shy away from the consequences of anyone’s actions here, and while on the surface you might be expecting a Late Night, a Newsroom or a Broadcast News, this eventually turns its eyes ever more towards a bitterness more reminiscent of Network, where the gloss and escapism afforded by television, award shows and getting to hang out with famous faces every other day of the week are revealed to be hiding layers of darkness that can destroy lives. Everyone here does such a great job in front of the camera, but it’s Mbatha-Raw’s stunning work in that last stretch of episodes that proves devastatingly unforgettable.
There’s a lot to chew on here and admittedly it does at times feel as if the series might be playing with too much material in the first half, where ageism and racism are also under the spotlight, but it settles magnificently throughout the later episodes and that final episode all but guarantees that you’ll want to come back for more.