Rise and whine! The Morning Show is back for season 2 [Apple TV+ review]

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Hasan Minhaj and Reese Witherspoon returns to The Morning Show
Ready for another season of network TV skullduggery? We are!

Mitch is gone. Hannah is dead. Alex wants out. Cory wants in! The Morning Show, Apple TV+’s flagship series about the diabolical inner workings of a network news operation, kicks off its second season Friday. And the highs and lows are just as broad as you remember them.

Stars Jennifer Anniston, Billy Crudup and Reese Witherspoon return for another go-round in the show-about-a-show. Can they keep the lights on without Steve Carell on the set? Can they ensure the future of the United Broadcast Association? Are people even still watching the morning news?!?

The Morning Show season 2 review: Episode 1, ‘My Least Favorite Year’

As the season opener, titled “My Least Favorite Year,” begins, UBA is crashing and burning. The network weathered the #MeToo scandal involving its Morning Show anchor Mitch Kessler (played by Carell), the death of his accuser (talent booker Hannah Shoenfeld, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the high-profile resignation of anchor and icon Alex Levy (Aniston), who stood fast during all of the show’s many scandals.

Alex has since decided to become a novelist. But the book she wrote makes no mention of Mitch’s sexual assault, so no one wants it. Of course, Cory Ellison (Crudup), the entertainment producer brought in to fix the news division at UBA, doesn’t care that she wants out in the worst way. The higher-ups want to fire him, so he decides his Hail Mary is bringing Alex back.

UBA’s Morning Show previously found a replacement for Alex in the form of Eric (Hasan Minhaj), but he took a deal to host the evening news. That leaves current Morning Show co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) without a partner, which means Alex may indeed be the only answer any of them has.

Bradley should be enjoying the time of her life, having graduated from nobody to national news icon in a few months. However, fate seems to be conspiring to keep her down. She confronts Cory and he all but breaks down, especially when she reminds him that she saved his job. The show may soldier on, but nobody’s going to be friendly going forward — especially when it’s revealed what day it is: December 31, 2020, just a few weeks before COVID-19 hit America.

Two by two

The Morning Show review, season 2, episode 1: Reese Witherspoon plays unlikely network news star Bradley Jackson.
Reese Witherspoon plays unlikely network news star Bradley Jackson.
Photo: Apple TV+

The Morning Show, the highest-profile show on Apple TV+ when the streamer launched two years ago, is one of those inevitabilities in the modern TV landscape. It’s very timely. We get lots of talk about cancel culture and feminism and how those things are inevitably mangled by TV news because of the corporate interests controlling every broadcast, and the idealized personas of the people in charge of delivery of each news item.

Of course, it’s pure science fiction that someone interesting would wind up anchoring a network morning show at all. In the real world, the closest we got was Megyn Kelly, and “interesting” turned out to be a euphemism instead of a compliment in that case.

The perils of the post-Sorkin drama

The Morning Show is a post-Sorkin show, as indebted to the failure of The Newsroom as it is the successes of The West Wing. It boasts TV darlings like Aniston and Carell as well as serious big-screen talent like Witherspoon and Mbatha-Raw (or … it did — the latter character’s obviously gone now). It looks like a perfect compromise between so many competing ideologies and ideas.

None of that matters unless the show is actually actively compelling, though. Your mileage may vary, but I find The Morning Show to be a very “hurry up and wait” kind of prospect. Whenever it threatens to build up a head of steam, it cuts to its least-interesting characters or focuses on a development about which nobody could possibly care.

There’s a lot of business this episode, for instance (and it’s delivered in a stereotypical Sorkin “walk and talk” where the camera operators chase the actors around a labyrinthine set) with actors Karen Pittman and Victoria Tate as producers of the news division that flatly refuses to get interesting. When you tell people you’re ripping off a foundational TV show, you’d better having something good in store for the theft. Otherwise I’m just thinking about the better show.

A mixed Gucci bag

There’s also just sort of an odd feeling about this show. Someone, somewhere will always be financing a show about rich media personalities in New York. Not sure why that is but you’ll simply never live through a five-year period without one.

This one really relishes the supposed access it grants its solidly middle-class audience: the lavish Maine Christmas parties, the feeling of being backstage at a taping of some garish TV show designed to play in dentist’s offices and jury rooms, the falseness of getting a glimpse at the inner workings of rarified environments that the planet could 100% live without.

I don’t know anyone who would be remotely excited to spend a day on the set of Live With Kelly and Ryan and yet this show gets pretty good ratings for purporting to be a tell-all fiction about just that.

This just isn’t a very interesting milieu, no matter how fast-paced and Sorkin-derived the dialogue (it still trips over itself once an episode congratulating the writers’ room for being so clever!). So The Morning Show must survive on intrigue, direction and performances.

Strengths and weaknesses

Mimi Leder, who also executive produces The Morning Show, directs this episode, which highlights her strengths and weaknesses. Leder’s best film is probably Deep Impact but more specifically it’s the first half of Deep Impact, when a newsroom prepares in real time to deliver the news that the world is ending.

Leder was thus the smartest choice to direct episodes of the Apple TV+ drama, but even still some of this just can’t line up totally with her interests. Asking her to do a Sorkin impression is frankly kind of an insult. She was always more expansive and careful in her camera placement than Sorkin required his directors to be.

Watch the scenes, for instance, of Aniston at her Maine cabin. Leder has a field day framing her against the harsh, snowy environs, and it is a real bummer to be pulled out of her careful framing to jog around a studio. Her framing of an argument between Crudup and Witherspoon almost papers over the clumsy metaphor at the center of the discussion.

Aniston and Witherspoon are both fine, but neither quite figures out how to sell their big confrontations. Mark Duplass, who plays former executive producer Chip Black, is like ham on rye. He’s certainly present and normal, which can be a commodity, but here he just blends in with the lights and noises.

Billy Crudup FTW

The Morning Show review season 2: Billy Crudup steals the show.
Billy Crudup steals the show.
Photo: Apple TV+

Crudup is, to me, the whole show. The actor spent the first decade of his career playing affable and earnest boy-next-door types. Then in 2009 he played Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and J. Edgar Hoover in Public Enemies, and it was like he got a new lease on life. Following that, it was like he suddenly found his calling. Character roles, including career-high work in Noah Buschel’s Glass Chin and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, brought out the innovator in Crudup. He’s been on a hot streak ever since.

Watching him sputter and pause and raise his hands like an angry wizard to try and sell his verbal arguments is just tremendous value, and it’s the reason I’m very excited to keep watching this season of The Morning Show, even if someone less capable is directing him.

He’s believably, lovably alien in the role of an executive who has to pass muster with people he loathes. The show should lean more into the outsized and absurd and less into the lightly unbelievable. That would be news.

The Morning Show on Apple TV+

New episodes of The Morning Show arrive on Apple TV+ on Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.