As disasters go, it wasn’t Cats, or even John Carter. The Morning Show left no fatalities in its wake, not even shredded careers or dented egos. While knowing how many people have actually seen the flagship Apple TV+ series is impossible, almost 12,000 people have reviewed the show on IMDb, the large majority positively. With the caveat that Golden Globes nominations and star power tend to go hand in hand, The Morning Show, with its huge-name cast, scored some. And yet, the question remains: If you’re one of the most powerful companies in the world launching your new streaming service with what’s purported to be one of the most expensive television series of all time, shouldn’t that series be, you know, better?
I’ve been puzzling for weeks over why The Morning Show feels so discordant—why a series that could so easily be highbrow drama or glorious schlock is instead positioned in a no-man’s-land between the two, uneasily tossing out softball Sorkin monologues and sultry Sondheim numbers. Billy Crudup, as the news executive Cory Ellison, represents one version of the show, playing his character as a full-bore Chaos Muppet with tangoing eyebrows and irresistible Machiavellian energy. Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson, a field reporter thrust into the viper pit that is morning television, is in a different series altogether, a joyless, vapid shrug of a journo-drama where the pinnacle of reportorial ethics is watching David Frost interview Richard Nixon on YouTube. As for Jennifer Aniston’s anchor Alex Levy, she’s stuck somewhere between Margo Channing and Martha Stewart, not fully unleashed in her diva tendencies but not naturalistic, either.
If I had to posit a guess as to what went wrong with The Morning Show, it would be this: Too many people had power over its conception, including the various creators, executive producers (Aniston and Witherspoon among them), and tech executives. Television is a writer’s playground, and the best series tend to come from one person’s distinct vision: Donald Glover’s hazy, whimsical, sketches of time and place; Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sharp-edged comedy of female self-loathing; Damon Lindelof’s unconstrained cross-pollination of superhero politics and American racism.
But The Morning Show, rather than springing, Athenalike, from the cranium of a writer with a headache, was patched together out of divergent ideas like a Boris Karloff monster. It has no consistency, no singular ambition or particular thing to say. Some scenes, like the moment in the final episode where Aniston’s Alex calmly douses her new producer with the contents of a water glass seconds before going to air, are pure ham. Others feel like they were written by an enthusiastic AI. “This is the best falafel in all five boroughs,” Crudup’s Cory tells the producer Chip (Mark Duplass) in one episode. “I read about it on Eater. You know Eater, right?” (Chip does know Eater, and even he seems perplexed as to why it’s getting such a substantial free plug.)
None of this means the show can’t be sporadically delightful, or even profound. That’s the point of a TV product that’s the equivalent of a cereal variety pack: You’ll get what you want, but a lot else that you didn’t. The Morning Show had a notoriously troubled inception, losing its first showrunner, Jay Carson, to “creative differences.” It was then entirely reoriented by its second, Kerry Ehrin, after the #MeToo movement and the allegations against Matt Lauer cast a shadow over the landscape of morning television late in 2017. Perhaps unexpectedly, the show’s retooled focus on workplace sexual harassment and the impossible delusion of celebrity abusers gave it some of its most resonant moments, infrequent though they tended to be. Playing Mitch Kessler, a TV host fired after news of his abuses broke in The New York Times, Steve Carell seemed to relish inhabiting the role of an amiable, beloved monster. The eighth episode—a flashback that revealed in excruciating detail how Mitch coerced a young booker, Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), into sleeping with him—was a discomfiting portrait of power at its most insidious.
Mitch’s reckoning, though, wasn’t enough to balance out The Morning Show’s failure to imagine character arcs for Alex and Bradley, or its reliance upon dialogue that veers disorientingly between soap-opera excess and toothless filler. “My family could buy and sell you and your entire family tree a thousand times over,” an assistant, Claire (Bel Powley), imperiously told her older boyfriend, the weatherman Yanko (Nestor Carbonell). In one scene, for no discernible reason, characters briefly debate whether Planet Earth is a documentary or a documentary series. And some things make no sense, like Alex being swaddled in cashmere coats as she arrives at work in the broad daylight of peak summertime, or Alex asking Mitch if she’s dead inside right after she broke down in paroxysms of emotion on-air. There are only a handful of delightful comebacks, like when a flunky apologizes to Alex for not being able to secure her a hotel suite at the site of a national tragedy on short notice, and she sardonically replies, “Well, can’t they kick out some of the displaced families? I do need room for my diamonds.”
In the end, though, it was insistently unclear what The Morning Show wanted to do, or say, or be, other than expensive. For all the reported interference from Apple requiring that its shows be sufficiently “aspirational,” what the company got for its reported nine-figure spend was something with the look of an HBO series and the writing of a subpar network pilot. Whether the show’s flat energy is a case of too many cooks or too much corporate creative control, the same affliction has plagued Apple TV+’s other series, too, from the impressively bland For All Mankind to the demented futuristic sci-fi epic See. Of the four scripted series the streamer launched with, the only one to really pop was Dickinson, a vibrant, offbeat historical comedy that was unmistakably branded with the sensibility of its creator, Alena Smith. That fact seems to hint at what might work for Apple TV+ shows in the future—or even for Season 2 of The Morning Show, if it can find an identity and commit to keeping it.