The first series of The Morning Show had me hooked. The crown jewel of Apple TV’s 2019 launch, it also seemed a little bit pleased with itself. Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon were given juicy lead parts, as well as executive producer roles. It centred on a male TV presenter (played by Steve Carrell) – and, basically, an entire network – brought low by #MeToo allegations. And it was very, very high definition. You could feel it being very expensive and really, really trying to matter at the same time. Everyone was excellent in it and I burned through the whole series at speed, while occasionally feeling that a Feminist Empowerment account on Instagram should have had a co-writer credit.
Today the second series launches, with a new episode arriving each week – and, happily, it seems to have settled into itself. We begin where we left off, immediately after Alex (Aniston) and Bradley (Witherspoon) have whistleblown against their own employers live on air; they are now hiding in a dressing room watching it go viral online. That, though, turns out to be a coda. Next thing we know, the camera is panning over the deserted New York streets, with Covid-19 health warnings on billboards, before skipping back three month’s to New Year’s Eve.
“Jesus... 2019 sucked,” says harried producer Mia (Karen Pittman), as she tries to pull together a package of the year’s highlights. Ha ha ha. Someone suggests mentioning Archie’s birth - “the royal baby...? That was optimistic” - and, clearly, no one knows there’s a big fat global pandemic around the corner. The aftermath of Mitch Kessler’s (Carrell) departure has left a number of open wounds; its shadow remains.
Alex is in a cosy cabin in Maine, wearing a fluffy jumper, stroking a dog and writing a memoir in which she likens success in the modern world with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes. Bradley, having been abandoned by Alex, has – in the ultimate symbol of capitulation to The Man – dyed her hair blonde and been forced to do live song and dance routines on air, in exchange for reporting on Important Stories.
And top dog exec Corey (Billy Crudup) has risen from the ashes after being fired for allowing Alex and Bradley’s on-air rant. Ratings for the show are tanking, so he draws up a plan to bring Alex back as Bradley’s co-anchor; to him, their viral moment railing against their patriarchal overlords is simply money-can’t-buy marketing.
He’s also, categorically, the show’s best character. When I watch Crudup play him, it makes me so gleeful that I feel like I’m being given a giant bag of sweets. He does this magical thing, marrying charm with desperation in a way that makes it impossible to tell whether he’s a slimeball, sociopath or saviour. He talks at lightning speed, powering through sentence after sentence as if he is literally trying to bullshit people to death, his mouth constantly moving until people submit to his will.
Aniston, too, is the best she’s ever been, wondering about with mournful, self-pitying eyes one minute, breathing furiously out of her nostrils the next, and Witherspoon remains one of the most reliable, compelling stars of boxset telly. And guest roles from Holland Taylor and Will Arnett? They’re spoiling us.
It’s true that the #MeToo story of series one allowed a few too many heavy-handed, grandstanding speeches - and by their very nature, such narratives can feel depressingly cliched. But here, the show seems to be digging into some of the messier elements of the #MeToo fallout, and ‘cancel culture’ more broadly. We see people flail and strain under the sense they’ve been thrown to the wolves, or try to reckon with their consciences as they examine their own past complicity. Who becomes collateral damage when a brand tries to protect itself? And is there no social change that capitalist organisations won’t co-opt to armour their own reputations? That Alex and Bradley’s on-air takedown of the network is used to sell them back to audiences for ratings reveals an industry that will eat anything in sight in order to survive.
It’s still shiny, but this time The Morning Show feels like it has more substance. It’s confident and lighter on its feet. Corey says to a room full of stony-faced execs who want to get rid of him: “This is a battle for the soul of the universe”. Is it? Maybe. Maybe The Morning Show matters more than I thought.
The Morning Show airs weekly on Apple TV, starting September 17