Monday, October 28, 2019

TV REVIEW: AppleTV+'s 'The Morning Show'

AppleTV+ will launch its original drama series The Morning Show on Friday, November 1 with its first three episodes. The drama stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Karen Pittman, Bel Powley, Desean K. Terry, Jack Davenport and Steve Carell.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first three episodes.

Back in the fall of 2017, the marketplace was abuzz with a new scripted drama package with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon attached to star and executive produce. The series would mark Aniston's first major television role since the conclusion of NBC's Friends in 2004. Meanwhile, Witherspoon was coming off the buzz and Emmy wins for the first season of HBO's Big Little Lies. The project landed at Apple's novice streaming unit with a two season order. It was the move that officially signaled to the creative community that Apple was stepping up in a major way. The tech giant was finally making plans to enter the scripted game. The company shelling out the cash required for this project proved that they were more than willing to go after top talent. Two years later, the product is finally about to debut. This Friday will see the launch of Apple's streaming service - named AppleTV+. The Morning Show starring Aniston, Witherspoon and a host of familiar faces will be among the first originals to define what audiences can expect from the Apple brand of programming. As such, a lot is riding on this debut. The streamer has already been hit with the perception of development woes after several notable departures and replacements from its first batch of shows. That includes The Morning Show which was originally created by Jay Carson but ultimately developed and showrun by Kerry Ehrin. Sometimes those creative changes at the top are in service to a better vision. Sometimes they are emblematic of larger structural issues. Again, the audience may only figure out what's true based on the final product. As such, it's meaningful to actually watch the episodes from The Morning Show and the other originals debuting this coming Friday.

Set in the competitive world of morning news, this drama explores female power and rage. What are women allowed to control in their lives? When they push for such respect, do they receive it or are they shunned for such blind ambition? Are they ever given as much support as their male counterparts? Is that something women should even be striving to achieve in the #MeToo era? These are the predominate questions of importance for this drama. Aniston stars as the long-running anchor of The Morning Show, Alex Levy. She has sat behind the desk for fifteen years. She has conducted serious interviews with presidents and is the face leading the highest rated show in the morning. She has enjoyed this ample success with her co-host Mitch Kessler, played by Steve Carell in his own return to series regular television. However, the series opens with Mitch being fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct is leaking to the press. The world is stunned. He is more than willing to fight back because he views himself as a victim of overzealous executives looking to revamp the show. Alex is blindsided because she had no idea that this was coming. And then, it immediately becomes her responsibility to inform the nation of this significant lost to their morning routines. Elsewhere, Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson is a reporter for a conservative local television station in the south. She has an aggressive personality that others frequently point out to her as the reason why she isn't further in her career at this point. A viral video suddenly flings her into the media world at large and an interview with Alex. The two clash but are eventually forced to continue interacting with each other. It's an incredibly forced and melodramatic twist that highlights how power moves are frequently done at the expense of people who simply don't have the luxury of saying no to high-level executives in the business. Mitch may be wallowing in his mansion alone. But the behavior that he was condoned for partaking in is still prevalent in this news organization. That too is startling. The show presents a narrative that is so much more than bad behavior of one abusive man. It also highlights the institutions that felt the need to protect him at all times. And now, there is the overwhelming sense that Alex and Mitch can no longer be the mom and dad figures America looks to for the morning take on the news.

But again, the drama is fundamentally about people fighting for control. They will backstab and betray each other. They highlight some of the diverse angles of what it means to be responsible storytellers now. However, it's a very cynical business. One where the people caught up in the system are frequently yelling at each other to deliver a point or earn respect. That too is unfortunately a significant portion of the show. There really isn't a whole lot of subtlety to the situation. The new president of the news division, Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) believes bringing in Bradley's more manic energy will help energize the show and make it a more lively experience in an age where people want to be entertained instead of well-informed. Meanwhile, executive producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) believes that Bradley is a trainwreck who will ruin everything the show has achieved in its success over the past decade. These are the prominent players on display in the early going. It's a show largely driven by the characters played by Aniston, Witherspoon, Carell, Crudup and Duplass. That's not inherently a bad thing. Aniston gives a towering performance as a woman who worries about her ongoing sanity when it seems like everyone is conspiring against her with hushed speculation. Witherspoon is boldly aggressive as someone who distrusts just about everything being told to her. The Carell segments of the narrative are simply bad though because the show asks the audience to see Mitch as an out-of-touch and abusive man but also as someone angling for more opportunities to prove to the world that he isn't as bad as everyone has been saying. Of course, the show keeps the details about Mitch's conduct just vague enough to feel as if he can go both ways in terms of redemption. That's odd and unsustainable. That paints an overall picture of the show though. Everything about it seems fleeting in a way that may alienate the audience from feeling a close connection with these characters. That may be by design. These figures in the world are typically seen as reliable sources of information. It's startling to see them painted differently. But the broad strokes of these characters largely go unchanged in three episodes which makes it seem like the show is still finding itself despite such a talented cast on display. As such, it's unfortunate to write that Apple's first marquee show is basically just another wait-and-see project to see if it can find a viable direction of ongoing interest.