Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon were on CBS This Morning the other day talking to host Gayle King about The Morning Show, the flagship drama for the new Apple TV+ platform that launched on Friday.
The conversation had an odd self-referential, meta quality, given that the new series is about a morning TV show and it was happening on morning TV with a female host, and The Morning Show’s core plot is about a female host. Or two female hosts, actually. In the interview, King, Aniston and Witherspoon talked about the new drama as though it were an urgent social document.
Well, it isn’t. The Morning Show is fascinating but flawed, a high-end soap opera about the internal machinations of television, female empowerment and the impact of the #MeToo movement. It is well-crafted, if plodding at times, and while it’s entertaining, it has no urgency to it.
The best of TV drama in the current period has a curious kind of cultural power. It’s about a time and place, about the ideology of that time and place, and it offers scrutiny of personal life in the context of that ideology. Essentially a lot of great TV drama is about identity crisis. From the gravity of Mad Men to the unhinged personal violence in the prestige-popcorn Killing Eve, the issue of identity is crucial. Another important point about the best of recent TV is that few great series were driven by star power.
The Morning Show has three major stars in Aniston, Witherspoon and Steve Carell, who play the central characters. It touches on identity, and attempts psychological and social relevancy, but in the most superficial manner. It’s entertainment, not art.
It opens with gusto. Alex (Aniston), co-anchor of a major network morning show, is on her way to work very early in the morning. She looks tired and is irritated by numerous calls from the show’s executive producer, Charlie (Chip) Black (Mark Duplass). She ignores the calls. Then Chip is standing right there when her car arrives at the studio. He tells her that her co-host Mitch (Carell), her on-air partner for years, has been under investigation for sexual misconduct, the New York Times just reported this fact and Mitch is out. It’s crisis time.
What ensues for ages is very much focused on Aniston as Alex. The series makes a near-fetish of her face and lingers long on the solitary quality of her existence as someone who must arise at 3 a.m. and go to work looking polished, calm and cheerful. There’s something unnerving about this near-fetish because it’s linked to Jennifer Aniston’s public persona, not the character.
There is also an exasperating obviousness to the introduction of Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), a TV reporter at a small station who becomes instantly famous when footage of her, yelling at a protester outside a coal mine, goes viral. So many people tell Bradley that she’s pushy, difficult and brash. The character is so sassy that she practically has a sign saying “Sassy” around her neck. Witherspoon can do this type of role with aplomb. It’s her trademark. And Aniston can do the suffering-woman routine in her sleep. As a viewer you do feel you’re watching something very calculated here, and originality is absent.
Carell brings considerable verve to the role of Mitch. He’s playing the alleged sexual predator but you’re pleased when he turns up. His rage is physical and at times electrifying. He claims all his escapades were consensual and there’s a great moment near the end of the first episode where Mitch roars, “This is all Weinstein’s fault!”
In the three episodes that have arrived (the rest will appear weekly on Apple TV+) there’s much melodrama, scenes of sentimentality and some speechifying. It’s not great TV, but good TV. So far, it only touches lightly on sexual harassment and emphasizes the necessary empowerment of the Alex and Bradley characters with a heavy hand. There is a twist at the end of each episode and, well, that’s certainly entertaining. But if Apple set out to make a huge impression with its flagship series, it sort-of succeeded. It’s making old-fashioned TV with a high-gloss sheen, not art or anything urgent.
Also airing this weekend
A new season of the wonderful Atypical streams on Netflix. The show’s central character Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old who is on the autism spectrum, is now beginning life as a college student. The series will have Sara Gilbert and Eric McCormack as university professors. Inside China’s Digital Gulag (Saturday, Sunday, 10 p.m. CBC NN on The Passionate Eye) is a British doc that goes undercover inside to highlight China’s incarceration of an estimated one million Uyghur Muslims in detention camps without trial. And specifically it looks at the extensive surveillance used by the government there, monitoring every aspect of life.
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