It takes the second season of Apple TV+'s The Morning Show seven-and-a-half minutes to get real sweaty.
Let's step back: The first season, which aired a decade or so ago in late 2019, was the prestige drama project that Apple wanted to use to launch its streaming service: Big names! Current events! Finger on the pulse! Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston played a newbie and a veteran morning show host, respectively, who are thrown together after Aniston's former on-air partner, played by Steve Carell, is fired following a sexual harassment scandal.
But a funny thing happened on the way to acclaim: The show was of decidedly middling quality. (And by "the show," I mean The Morning Show, not the show-within-the-show also called The Morning Show, which we shall call TMS here so we don't all lose our collective bearings.) Some elements, like Billy Crudup's gleefully weaselly executive Cory, worked. Other parts, like the plentiful scenes in which Mitch (Carell) felt sorry for himself, did not. The uneven season ended when Alex (Aniston) and Bradley (Witherspoon) blew the lid off of a culture of cover-ups at UBA, called out their big bosses on air with the help of Cory and show executive producer Chip (Mark Duplass), and ... fade to black.
And so, Season 2 presents a curious question for The Morning Show: What do you do when your show has all the talent and money in the world, but the first season just didn't work? You can't just move on, because you're a tentpole for the streaming service you're working for, which might as well be called We Print Money TV+, and all they want is to make you a success.
What do you do with a second season? Double down? Make changes? Push ahead? Oh, and remember, before you answer: Your first season about television production and the magic of being wealthy in New York City aired right before a pandemic hit and changed everything about television production and the magic of ... well, being wealthy somewhere while maintaining a residence in New York City.
This is why I wanted to follow this show through this season — not because it's so good, and not because it's so loved, and not because I intend to drill down into its approximately four million subplots to make sense of every one. These episodes are a story in themselves. They are the story of how a huge, expensive project that came pre-loaded with publicity and talent and money and a current-events hook tries to move forward after nearly two years away.
The season-two premiere opens with a couple of scenes showing the immediate aftermath of Alex and Bradley's big rebellion, which the show now seems to place sometime in early 2019. This sequence goes about the way you would expect, in that Alex's team is frantic to protect her and The Suits are furious. ("You're a dead man," says disgraced network boss Fred "Angela Chase's father from My So-Called Life" Micklen to Cory, to which Cory flatly responds, "Said the corpse.")
Then you get the credits (which remain excellent), and then there's a sequence in which "Return To Me" plays while a camera flies through the COVID-emptied streets of New York in March 2020. Then we move back "three months earlier," to New Year's Eve, where we begin this season proper. So if you're keeping up, it's already been early 2019, then it was March 2020, and now it's New Year's Eve 2019. We are not at the eight-minute mark yet!
BUT WAIT. Help is on the way, because once we are affixed to time and space, we cut to a blonde Bradley — that is to say, a blonde Reese Witherspoon — on The Morning Show singing "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" with Hasan Minhaj, who it takes a minute to understand is not playing himself. He is playing Eric, Bradley's new co-host, who came in after Alex quit in the spring. The two of them are promoting their New Year's Eve special, obliviously try-harding their way through the song, while the control room takes in news of yet another ugly UBA revelation that's gone public, this time involving allegations against the anchor of the evening news.
You can almost see the perspiration dripping from the show: They made Reese blonde again! There is singing and dancing! Don't you like Hasan Minhaj?
Staffing TMS is, as it was in the first season, the opening crisis. Bradley and Eric haven't been getting great ratings, and now Eric is set to be plucked from TMS and given that plum evening anchor job that's about to open up. Bradley needs a new partner.
Cory suggests they get Alex back, but Stella wants to be allowed to explore possible co-anchors for Bradley who are not white women — in fact, it seems she would like to explore dumping Bradley and starting from scratch. This is a non-starter for Cory, who has always had a warm relationship with Bradley that seems to have further warmed since Alex left. So Cory is letting Stella negotiate with the new co-host she wants while sneaking around to undermine her by begging Alex to come back.
And just where is Alex? Well, she had a big rush of "what a feminist icon!" publicity after speaking out about UBA, which you can tell from all the magazine covers about herself that she has spread out on a table in her home, which seems super normal, not weird at all, no sir. But she's now retreated to Maine. She's been writing her memoir (of course), and she lives in a picturesque house and splits her own wood, which is perhaps the most Cher-Horowitz-ian "AS IF!" moment of the episode. In effect, Alex is starring in her own revival of the Diane Keaton classic Baby Boom, minus the baby and the hot veterinarian.
When Cory shows up to beg Alex to return temporarily to TMS as part of a big deal with the network that would ultimately lead to a lot of other ... feminist icon projects? ... she says no. She doesn't want to come back.
But then Alex hits up her neighbor's New Year's Eve party and runs into a psychic played by Kathy Najimy, who intuits that she feels sad and guilty — after whiffing on the basics by intuiting that Alex's parents are dead and she has a son. Now, one could ask why Alex would keep listening to a psychic who is unable to distinguish the dead from the living, and one could also suspect Kathy Najimy The Psychic of concluding Alex feels sad and guilty based on all those magazine articles about her.
As it turns out, however, Alex is sad and guilty. Also, Maine is cold and she has no friends and she is probably very tired of splitting her own wood (AS IF!). So she calls Cory just as the ball is about to drop in Times Square, and she agrees to come back to UBA. Delighted, Cory kneecaps Stella by telling her that the deal she's been busy negotiating is off, and hey, it's going to be two white women at the anchor desk after all! Cory is in a state of weasel bliss about his successful end run around Stella, until he looks up at a news ticker and sees that Hannah's parents — you remember Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who may have intentionally taken her own life after the network failed her six or eight times regarding Mitch's sexual harassment — are suing UBA for wrongful death.
Oh, and as Cory stares miserably at that news? Somebody sneezes. New York City is now two months away from its first confirmed COVID case. Achoo!
Here's the question that hangs over this entire first episode: Why are we here? Not here watching this show — people watch things that are much worse than this with many fewer bright spots. What I mean is, who on this planet thought it would be a great idea to spend an entire season of this show reliving the onset of COVID? It's some kind of weird apocalyptic nostalgia thing, like ... hey, remember realizing how bad it was? Remember being sent home from work if you were lucky? Remember new ring lights and hand-washing demos? Get ready to think about that stuff a lot more! Maybe Alex and Bradley can interview Tiger King!
At first, it seems weird, but honestly, it's very sad. I suspect that they conceived this season when it was clear that a vaccine was in sight, and they thought that by September 2021 when the season dropped, things would be going well. They thought we'd be doing better than we are. They thought we'd be feeling more ready to process it.
Instead, this season is landing at what is, for a lot of people, not the most dangerous moment in this pandemic but certainly the most infuriating. So an invitation to look back on January through March of 2020 is like an invitation to a person who just got hit in the face with a tennis ball to look at an instant replay of being hit with that ball while also trying to avoid another ball.
So I want to talk about this show this season, even if you're not watching all of it. I want to talk about how they're using celebrity, how they're trying to capture shreds of the zeitgeist, why Steve Carell is still part of the show (he is!), and whether they have anything left to say about media or the #MeToo movement. But I also want to talk about how they shoot and light these people, how they dress them and do their hair, what music they use, and how they structure stories. Because in all its messiness, The Morning Show is a story about what television looks like at the moment.
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