‘The Morning Show’ Season 2 Tackles Even More Hot Topics With Brisk Pacing

After every scandal there’s fallout. That’s much of what drives the second season of Apple TV’s “The Morning Show.” Its first season back in 2019 was a bold move for the streaming service. Here was a new series starring two major stars openly tackling the #MeToo moment in American culture, with a plot blatantly inspired by the downfall of former Today Show host Matt Lauer. Its dramatic center was a rivalry between a seasoned host, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and an eager upstart, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). Their workplace, the fictional UBA network, had been rocked by sexual assault allegations against a star anchorman. The season came to a heart-wrenching crescendo in which Alex and Bradley joined forces on the air to expose the abuses and cover-ups at the station.

And that’s where the new season picks up. It’s early 2020 and Alex has left UBA and is sequestered writing what appears to be a memoir. Bradley is still at the network, but relegated to still doing the Morning Show, meaning they still won’t let her do the hard news, primetime slot she covets. The season premiere finds her rehearsing a musical number with co-host Eric (Hasan Minhaj) for an upcoming New Year’s Eve special. The fallout of last season’s scandal involving former star host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) lingers and yet another anchorman soon falls under a cloud of accusations. Kessler himself is self-exiled in Italy, trying to avoid obsessing over his former life and seeming genuinely redemptive. But TV is a cutthroat world and soon news operations head Cory (Billy Crudup) is grappling with how to stop an ongoing dip in ratings. His idea is to bring Alex back, especially after her big speech last season turned her into a proto-feminist icon. Stella Bak (Greta Lee), whose company was bought by UBA and specializes in tapping into what Gen-Z and Millennial audiences are into, prefers they consider both a non-white option and possibly dumping Bradley as well. Bigger stress drops when the family of Kessler’s accuser, Hannah, who died by possible suicide, issues a wrongful death suit against UBA. Meanwhile in China, a strange new illness that sounds like the flu is beginning to spread at alarming rates.

Even more than the first season, “The Morning Show” in its second round is a packed ensemble show. This time around it also attempts to pack in more relevant social themes. In a way it makes absolute sense, because the first season’s key focus on sexual harassment culminated in a public reckoning for UBA. Now it becomes clear that while public perceptions about sexual behavior are changing, merciless corporate politics never will. An early running theme is how Cory still has feelings for Bradley yet keeps having to hurt her because of network decisions. He knows she wants the nighttime slot, and underneath New Year’s fireworks has to break the news that Eric is getting the gig. When Kessler alerts Cory that someone is trying to leak smears about Hannah to various newspapers, a network executive shrugs and reminds Cory there are consequences to one’s actions. What matters is keeping the show going. 

It’s the inner politics of UBA that keep the season darkly intriguing and sharp. Moments such as when Alex attends a team dinner and has to practice tense diplomacy with her colleagues have the charge of a political Washington drama. This is a hyper competitive environment and also a business dependent on team work. When the star screws up, everyone is liable to suffer. Another strong angle is the storyline involving Kessler, which for most of the season stands apart on its own. Steve Carell does a fine job imagining life after the fall for a disgraced celebrity. He sits alone reading at Italian cafes, sometimes having to endure the sudden heckling by someone who recognizes him. A local filmmaker/journalist, Paola (Valeria Golino), befriends him, offering some escape from his shame. He’s not exactly reformed, but aware enough of the burned bridges he’s left behind. She opens the possibility of Kessler helping with a documentary on a local rape case that had unjust consequences for the victim.

The weaker side of this season of “The Morning Show” is that it also attempts to hit every single buzzword dominating the culture. Your mind can get whiplash keeping track. Cuban-American anchor Yanko Flores (Nestor Carbonell) gets in trouble for saying on air that he has a spirit animal, which might be offensive to Native Americans. When Stella bluntly tells reporter Daniel (Desean Terry) that he doesn’t “have it” to be ascended in the on air ranks, he suspects it must be because he’s both Black and gay. None of this phases set boss Mia Jordan, played with great presence by Karen Pittman, who has no qualms about icily telling returning, shamed producer Chip (Mark Duplass), not to interfere with her rank in the studio. Bradley gets close to another experienced host, Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies in a pristine performance), with whom she starts having a sexual relationship. Is Bradley a lesbian? She refuses to officially take on the label. This irritates Laura, who reveals she was fired in the ‘90s for her sexual identity in a time when it wasn’t so safe to come out. All this takes place before Covid-19 impacts the United States, everyone has to wear masks, and some key characters will fall ill. 

Using the pandemic as a plot device will surely prove to be the season’s most controversial element. “Too soon” might be the catchphrase of those who don’t approve. It’s a mixed result, as if the show is too eager to prove it is so relevant it’s chasing the headlines. As a purely engaging program, “The Morning Show” never lacks energy, melodramatic suspense and fantastic acting. The writing can get cluttered, because there isn’t much of a clear aim this time, but the better ideas do shine through. By the finale there’s even a subplot involving someone’s missing relative who took off from rehab. A crisis of conscience endured by Alex has a powerful resonance by the season finale, even if the virus is used as a convenient plot device to make her face some inner demons. Yet it never reaches the powerful crescendo of last season’s closing moments. Much of the better banter can be a comic framing of the debates going on about cancel culture and overbearing political correctness. All in all, “The Morning Show” packs a slightly weaker punch this time around, but it still doesn’t merit cancellation.

The Morning Show” season two begins streaming Sept. 17 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.