Apple TV+ launched in 2019 with one of the most expensive dramas of all time, a peek behind the curtain of a high-profile NYC morning news show and how it functions in the era of #MeToo and Cancel Culture called “The Morning Show”. Reviews were decidedly mixed—our own critic called it “as narratively injurious as it is toothlessly benign”—but a lot of critics and viewers came around as the season unfolded, and it even landed multiple Emmy nominations, winning Best Supporting Actor. While it wasn’t a breakthrough hit, it was successful enough to lead to curiosity about its second act, especially after an intense season-one finale. Sadly, the uncertainty that dogged the first half of the initial season returns even more prominently as this show continues to struggle with identity, unsure of what it’s saying about the private lives of its very public personalities. It’s incredibly watchable and yet always a rewrite or two away from its potential. Like its characters, it so often falls just short.
[Major spoilers for the first season to follow.]
The first season of “The Morning Show” centered on the fallout at the fictional UBA network when famous anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) was fired in a sexual misconduct scandal. Spiraling out over the end of her professional career, his partner Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) panicked and brought in a field reporter named Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) before realizing that she couldn’t really control her either. Meanwhile, an executive named Cory Ellison (a series-stealing and Emmy-winning Billy Crudup) orchestrated everything, butting heads with the sleazy President of UBA, Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin).
The on-air struggle was just one of the arcs of “The Morning Show,” which got richer as it embraced its ensemble, especially a talent booker named Hannah Shoenfeld (a phenomenal Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who revealed that she was one of Mitch’s victims before killing herself in the season finale. Her suicide and the on-air burning of Mitch and Fred by Alex and Bradley was the kind of season-ending event that ripples into the next year, and those decisions define a lot of the action of the second season. How does UBA possibly recover?
Naturally, Hannah’s death has sent everyone into a professional and personal tailspin. After a brief prologue that unfolds immediately after that tumultuous night, the second season jumps forward eight months to the beginning of 2020. Yes, season two unfolds against a backdrop of an emerging pandemic, although it’s largely just that, something gaining airtime on UBA with each passing episode. Giving mere lip service to COVID-19 for the large majority of the season other than a brief arc when Daniel (Desean Terry) is stuck in Wuhan is a questionable decision that’s indicative of season-long flaws wherein themes and topics arise and fade before the show does anything interesting with them, only to bring them back when it suits the shock factor.
Against that backdrop, uncertainly reigns at UBA. Cory finds a way to use the chaos to his advantage, but Alex flees the scene of the crime, and Chip (Mark Duplass) loses his job as executive producer. Bel Powley departs the show too, leaving Nestor Carbonell’s Yanko Flores with a less-engaging subplot this season about racial sensitivity that feels undercooked.
The replacements for the departing cast members don’t have quite the same impact as the emotionally resonant Mbatha-Raw and humorous Powley. Julianna Margulies jumps in as a former news anchor who forms an unexpected relationship with one of the regulars. Margulies is always solid, but her presence reminds one how much smarter “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” have been in addressing similar themes regarding deeply flawed men. Greta Lee joins as the new President of News and the great Holland Taylor chews the scenery in a small role as one of the few power players who can strike fear into Cory.
The second season of “The Morning Show” largely segments its cast into individual subplots (perhaps because of pandemic filming) and the result is a season that feels fragmented and lacks the confidence of the best of the first. Alex gets dragged back to the morning show, before disappearing again in a prolonged panic attack over the expose being written by Maggie (Marcia Gay Harden), which she expects to destroy her life. Jackson finally gets her own subplot, but the writers don’t seem to know what to do with it after it explodes in the middle of the season into a series of public reveals that then basically get pushed out of the way for more of the “Mitch & Alex Show.” And Mitch spends most of the season in Italy, believe it or not, both in hiding from his public shaming and quarantined because of COVID. He meets a woman there, played by Valeria Golino, and the writers try to figure out how to keep Carell on the show without giving a scumbag a redemption arc. Audiences will be divided as to how they pull off that tough balancing act, especially in its final stretch.
“The Morning Show” still has a habit of overwriting its dialogue, but the bigger problem this season is characters that were growing and developing last year feel more inconsistent, mouthpieces for writers instead of fully realized. Some will notice how Cory has been softened a bit—although Crudup remains series MVP—but the bigger problem is how often these people are defined by their crises. The show constantly chooses plotting over nuance, and it leads to a lack of believability—the on-air material is still frustratingly unlike anything that’s actually ever been on television, for example.
“The Morning Show” is at its best not when it’s preaching or playing with topicality in a cheap way but when it’s unpacking how much moral baggage is allowed in cutthroat professions. It had the potential to be a truly searing look at the structures that support men like Harvey Weinstein and Mitch Kessler, asking questions about enablers who repressed their own knowledge in professional pursuits. It’s not ambitious enough to be that, and every time it tries to get the “big picture” it falters or pulls its punches. (Although a subplot about the network launching UBA+ feels like a subversive aside about the very existence of the streaming service that pays the bills.)
However, there are characters here that engage once one back up and views it more as a traditional ensemble drama than the commentary it has failed to become. Crudup’s Cory is wonderful, a truly modern shark who only values loyalty and friendship as far as they can serve him. If Cory is always a step ahead, Duplass nails the kind of decent guy who is always a step behind, racing to catch up before he trips (or, more accurately, someone trips him). Aniston often feels at the whim of the writers, but she allows Alex to be particularly selfish in certain ways this season that work—she accepts the character’s unlikability instead of forcing compassion.
Unlike last season, wherein it felt like the writers built their multiple arcs to an impressive finale, this season kind of goes off the rails. However, one could argue that it works on its own terms, arguably embracing its more soapy, unpredictable side—in a lot of ways, this is more “Dallas” than “The Newsroom”—with a series of insane plot turns. The final arc of the season redefines the show for future seasons and will likely be a turning point for anyone on the fence regarding the show’s thin topicality. Presuming they’re still watching. [C]