Sometimes more information changes everything. In 2013, the then–New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter published Top of the Morning, a splashy dive into the “cutthroat world” of morning television. In his book, Stelter examined the rivalry between NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America, the fraught relationship between the former Today hosts Matt Lauer and Ann Curry, and the health battles of GMA’s Robin Roberts. In early November 2017, after a Lifetime option to adapt Stelter’s book had expired, the rights were incorporated into a newly announced project that doubled as Apple’s foray into television. Later that month came a significant twist. More than a dozen women stepped forward to allege that Lauer had harassed women he worked with, abused his power, and in some cases even committed sexual assault. The most indelible detail involved a button that Lauer reportedly had installed, which allowed him to lock his office door without having to leave his chair.
The allegations against Lauer, which he denied, joined an avalanche of revelations about high-profile, powerful men in the entertainment industry and beyond. They also upended what is now The Morning Show, the crown jewel in a cluster of expensive and star-studded series Apple is releasing today on its new subscription-TV platform, Apple+. Unexpectedly, a series about the bloated egos and inflated paychecks of morning television’s biggest stars had to become something more substantive: an excavation of the dynamics that helped so many American icons purportedly become monsters.
As you watch The Morning Show, more context, again, helps. The first three episodes made available to critics are remarkably flat for such a lavish venture. The series looks fantastic—polished and sumptuous in its re-creation of glaring TV studios, glassy Tribeca lofts, ballroom galas. Even a West Virginia coal-mine protest gets juiced with vivid landscapes and countless fleece-wearing extras clutching banners. But the initial story, which features the anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) dealing with misconduct allegations about her on-air partner, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), feels strangely inert. Aniston’s Alex is a difficult character to absorb: She’s prickly, guarded even with family members, and mired in an existential crisis even before scandal hits. Carell’s Mitch, groomed to physically resemble Lauer, is enraged, barking at handlers who seem ill at ease in his presence. Reese Witherspoon plays Bradley Jackson, a local reporter on another network whose viral rant at the coal-mine protest turns her into national news, and whose scrappy underdog status is hard to square with Witherspoon’s preternatural star presence.
But then, on Thursday, Apple released more episodes to critics, and I watched more, and something changed. The pilot is an odd cocktail of stilted Sorkinian monologues and cashmere-swaddled nervous breakdowns, energized occasionally by Billy Crudup’s scenery-chewing performance as a satanic network honcho, Cory Ellison. There are periodic explicative orations about the state of the nation. (“I think America is tired of Twitter fighting. It’s ignorant, and it’s contributing to the dumbing down of our country.”) A scene where a drunken Alex tries to process the news cycle outing Mitch as a serial harasser by going into his dressing room and rifling through his kombucha stash feels emotionally idle, and endless.
And yet, when The Morning Show finally gets its setup established, and starts to grapple with the consequences and the meaning of what Mitch has actually done, the show finds some momentum. It’s at its most fascinating, and meaningful, when it’s picking at the cultural scar tissue left by so many allegations: the men in puddles of self-pitying reprisal, the dishonest proclamations that persist even now about movements going too far and all men being tarred with the same sticky brush, regardless of the scale of their reported offenses. With Carell’s Mitch, The Morning Show gets to think about the self-aggrandizement and denial that make some abusers incapable of honestly evaluating themselves. But it also gives space to the women he harassed to explain how his behavior affected them.
The moments in which Kerry Ehrin, The Morning Show’s showrunner, and Mimi Leder, its director and executive producer, etch out Mitch’s stages of delusion are riveting to watch. In the pilot, he’s irate. “They can’t just do this to me,” he rants, a cornered child smashing his toys. “It’s illegal. They can’t just ruin my career based on hearsay. I didn’t rape anybody.” By Episode 2, he’s in denial, insisting to his business manager that this substantial hit to his income is only temporary. But in Episode 3, when Mitch plays tennis with a scandal-ridden film director (played by Martin Short) whom he initially sees as a fellow victim of an overbearing witch hunt, you can finally sense the sharper edges of self-awareness start to pierce Mitch’s armor. It gradually dawns on him that the man he’s aligning himself with is actually a predator. But that same realization makes it harder to conceal the fact that he might be one, too.
Initially, I was perplexed by the fact that The Morning Show seemed to be downplaying Mitch’s offenses. But in doing so, the show gets the breathing room it needs to consider questions of denial, complicity, and even redemption. I watched later episodes of The Morning Show the same day I read Nell Scovell’s conversation with David Letterman about the culture he fostered on Late Night for years, treating the studio, she writes, “like his personal hookup app.” It’s clear from their discussion that Letterman has committed himself to an honest reckoning with how he behaved while being feted as a national treasure. It’s less obvious how an entire industry can fix itself when not everyone is willing to do the same. So many men accused of misconduct have either fought back—with mixed success—or entirely disappeared from public scrutiny. The Morning Show, with its behind-the-scenes look at Mitch’s disgrace, offers a different view, and it can be a fascinating thing to behold.