Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon Square off Amid Sex Scandal in ‘The Morning Show’
The dawn of new streaming services is upon us and Apple TV Plus makes its debut with a gamut of content. Its first major contender, “The Morning Show,” is a dark, edgy series that dramatizes quite directly the world of television in the post #MeToo era. It’s so direct in fact, that one can easily imagine real life players cringing at some of its characters, as it hits too close to home. The casting itself has a boldness to it with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell shedding any trace of their comedic personas, becoming personalities that could be culled from endless, real-life headlines.
Aniston is Alex Levy, the co-host of a famous morning program, not unlike the Today Show, called the Morning Show. Levy’s network is shaken to its core when her usual on-camera partner Mitch Kessler (Carell) is outed for having numerous affairs with staffers. Shamed and fired, Kessler sits home moping in his mansion. Back at the station there is chaos as the head of the news division, Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), struggles to find a replacement and look good with his corporate bosses. The scandal comes at just the wrong time considering Ellison was planning to actually fire Levy. A wild card grabs Ellison’s attention when a video of her flipping out during protests at a mining camp goes viral. Enter Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a local TV news reporter known for her short temper. Ellison invites Jackson to visit the network offices and discuss a future position, which means the possibility of becoming Levy’s new co-host. It’s seen as an affront by the veteran Levy, who decides to use the ongoing scandal to cement her own authority instead of letting Jackson take the limelight.
“The Morning Show” had a rocky beginning when its original producer left and was replaced by Kerry Ehrin of “Bates Motel.” The result is a drama that at its best has the feeling of an expose. By keeping most of the action inside the newsroom and corporate offices, the series takes on the tone of an almost anthropological look at media operations post-Harvey Weinstein. The obvious point of reference for the writers is the Matt Lauer scandal which saw the famous host fired from the Today Show over allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment. Steve Carell is dressed and made to look like a TV phantom of Lauer. As the scandal unfolds he sits at home with friends and family, ranting in dialogue similar to Lauer’s own self-defenses, claiming all of his encounters were consensual, and it’s not as if extramarital affairs are anything new. This is the first major new show that ponders what the accused must be like behind closed doors, watching the entire world trash them. The first several episodes of “The Morning Show” are all about fallout as the network deals with the threat of losing advertisers and seeking a quick replacement. If the show has a weakness it’s that it feels disjointed at times, never settling on one sole theme, unless the disorientation caused by #MeToo in media outlets everywhere is the theme.
While Carell’s Kessler is the fallen star in the background, Aniston and Witherspoon are the forefront as embodiments of how scandal can elevate and shift careers. A newsroom diva, Levy feels entitled to choosing her co-host and becomes even more overbearing once she learns she was about to get the axe. Aniston’s portrayal is devoid of her trademark knack for comedy, she’s playing the role straight as someone so consumed by their career even her daughter feels like someone making a cameo. There’s slightly more humor to Witherspoon, whose Bradley Jackson happens to be a conservative. She pitches story ideas that rankle producers because of their obvious slant. For example she wants to report on a family claiming to be gentrified when in fact they’re afraid they will lose a business that makes them a fortune. But Ellison takes a chance on her because she’s a firecracker that could easily grab ratings. In one scene he tells Chip (Mark Duplass), a producer close to Levy, that these days news is a form of theater, a fantasy concocted to feed audiences what they want, not necessarily what they should know.
When “The Morning Show” isn’t bordering on somber social commentary it spends time with its impressive ensemble cast that includes Nestor Carbonell as Yanko, the go-to filler for Kessler who happens to be sleeping with an assistant half his age, or Desean Terry as Daniel Henderson, a reporter who suspects he’s just in the studio as a token black hire who will never get the top spot. Around these characters swirl relevant themes about the fusion of news and celebrity, and how journalism as a TV outlet has become pure corporate fodder.
“The Morning Show” announces Apple TV Plus as a streaming outlet unafraid to pack big names with dicey subject matter. It’s imperfect but engaging, with its material elevated by a great cast. Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell could have played it safe, instead they let loose with roles that will feel all too plausible. It’s about the nest of ambition and guilt behind the teleprompter.
“The Morning Show” season one premieres Nov. 1 with new episodes streaming every Friday on Apple TV+.