Apple TV+ service launched this morning. And, with it, The Morning Show, Apple’s star-studded drama about the goings-on at a morning news show.
It stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. With that cast, it’s an illustration of the ambitions Apple has for creating top-tier entertainment for its streaming show. But is it any good? Here’s what I made of the first episode.
The Morning Show: An Apple TV+ show with a formula
Shows or movies about the world of TV news might seem a niche genre, but there’s a formula for it. In a world in which we see the myriad ways in which the news is massaged to fit a narrative, things typically kick off with something “real” happening. Someone or something has to happen that busts people out of their comfy world reporting on events they’re too cynical to really believe in.
The formula was pioneered in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 movie Network. In Network, anchor Howard Beale snaps on live TV. This leads to his famous statement that, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” This formula was followed by everything from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom to the comedy Anchorman (where it’s subverted by having the newsroom characters be the only ones who don’t realize how the world is changing.)
For this formula to work, there needs to be some fundamental tear in the fabric of reality that’s compellingly real. In an age of hyper-partisan politics, it wouldn’t simply be enough to have a presenter that’s “mad as hell” about life in general. Turn on any TV news show today and there are plenty of those. The #MeToo movement makes this ring true. The Morning Show is a show about men abusing their power in the workplace and how women have had enough of it.
Could there be a more 2019 message?
Embracing the #MeToo debate
This theme is highlighted by the A-plot of Steve Carell’s Mitch Kessler, co-anchor on the titular Morning Show. Early on, he’s accused of sexual misconduct by co-workers. It’s a “ripped from the headlines” story that’s obviously inspired by the firing of Matt Lauer by NBC in November 2017 for inappropriate sexual behavior. The Morning Show starts with the revelations spilling out and the show’s crew scrambling to try and respond.
There’s no ambiguity about whether or not Kessler has done it. While he offers the half-hearted defense that, “Since the dawn of time men have used their power to attract women,” he’s also got no problems with proudly admitting in front of his wife that’s he’s had multiple extramarital affairs. But even so, people simply don’t want to admit that the man they have worked with for so long could be a sexual predator.
There’s a telling moment where Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy first hears the news that there have have been multiple complaints made. “How multiple?” she asks.
Try to be more agreeable
But while Kessler is the most egregious offender, there’s plenty more on display in the show to depict a world in which men run things. It doesn’t seem coincidence that Alex, the most powerful woman on screen in terms of her role on the show, has a masculine name. And even though she’s got agency, she’s still stuck speaking off an autocue.
While the men who run the show distance themselves from Mitch Kessler, they also kind of don’t. They’re ditching him because he’s got bad PR, not necessarily because they morally condemn him. When Levy delivers a tearful on-air speech about he allegations, and how she stands by women, one of the executives wishes she could face a similar bit of bad news every day. It really “turns her lights on” they say.
Things may be changing, though. Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson (again with the masculine name) is a firebrand. She almost beats up a man in one of her first scenes, and becomes a viral celebrity when this footage makes its way online. When someone tells her to “try to be more agreeable,” she flips them off. Her screen debut is accompanied by the Don McLean song “American Pie.” Its most notable lyrics? About “good old boys” saying “this will be the day that I die.”
The Morning Show review: A winner for Apple TV+
I was surprised by how much I liked The Morning Show. Not because of its content or unabashed social agenda, but because early reviews had lambasted it for its wishy-washy approach. (That was one of the better ones. Another damned it as a “belly flop.”) I was expecting something that would try and milk awkward laughs while also trying to make some faintly pro-feminist comments about #MeToo without offending anyone. It commits far more to the drama of this than I had expected.
I’m not sure that a show about the making of a TV show is ever going to be a massive hit. This seems more like a show to win awards than one that’s going to find a massive audience. But, at least based on the pilot episode, I think this has the potential to be a great series. I’ll certainly be watching more. And, really, that’s all you can hope for from the first episode of a new series.
(One last point I couldn’t fit in anywhere else: Watch out for the presence of iPhones in the show. I counted 9 lingering close-ups of an iPhone in the first 20 minutes alone. Someone should really start a tally…)