There’s a scene in the fifth episode of The Morning Show in which lawyers for UBA, the network that airs the morning show within The Morning Show, meet with the New York Times to discuss a damning, soon-to-be-published story about the show’s fired co-host, Mitch Kessler. A Times reporter and an editor announce that a former assistant to UBA president Fred Mickland told them, on the record, that Mitch’s sexual misconduct was common knowledge at the network. In other words, it isn’t a matter of a bad apple. It’s a whole rotten orchard.
Billy Crudup’s Cory Ellison, the head of the news division, makes a suggestion as he listens in on the call: What if we tell the Times that Mitch barged into the office and had to be escorted out by security — something that happened earlier in the episode — in exchange for it dropping the comments from Fred’s old assistant? Fred approves and tells Cory to text the suggestion to the UBA lawyers, who are speaking to the Times from their L.A. office. Cory immediately starts texting and is so energized by what’s happening that he can’t contain himself.
“This is exciting,” he says, as though he’s watching all of this unfold from afar rather than participating directly in it.
As I rewatched this scene in an attempt to figure out what makes The Morning Show so compelling to me, I suddenly realized that when I watch The Morning Show, I am Billy Crudup’s Cory Ellison: energized by the constant crises behind the cheery work of infotainment TV, but also detached from those crises and even bemused by them. Crudup — whose performance, by the way, is one of the many pleasures of The Morning Show — waltzes through every scene with a smirk on his face, as if he might burst out laughing at any moment. He seems to be as aware as those of us watching that what’s happening is ridiculous. But he can’t extricate himself from it. Because it’s exciting.
While Apple TV+ is dropping the remaining episodes of this ten-episode season on a once-per-week basis, critics have access to the whole thing, which I watched, largely in one big gulp on a recent Saturday. If this very second I found out that more episodes were suddenly, magically available, I would stop writing this article right now so I could gobble those up, too. Clearly, I like this show. But I feel more conflicted about liking it than I have about any other show in recent memory.
I’m not alone in this. Other critics have expressed similar paradoxical feelings about the series. “It resembles a more muted Shonda Rhimes serial or a less smug Aaron Sorkin joint — it’s pithy and easy to watch but rarely as thought-provoking as you’d hope, given the topic,” wrote Judy Berman of Time. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum mirrored my feelings in a single tweet: “I don’t necessarily think it’s good (and I didn’t like the pilot), but I am enjoying watching it, why lie.”
Willa Paskin of Slate went long and deep on her own attraction to the series in a piece with the headline, “The Morning Show Is a Triumph of Bad Taste.” “It’s not great, but oh, God, is it interesting,” she wrote. “It’s not perfect, but oh, Lord, is it watchable. It’s not very good, but hurry up, sit by me, it’s starting.”
If so many critics objectively find the show not very good, why do we like it so much? Paskin noted that perhaps it’s hard for people to own up to their true feelings about The Morning Show because, even though everyone has bad tastes in their cultural flavor palette, no one wants to admit it. This is a very good point.
I also think there’s a disconnect in The Morning Show that motivates us to keep watching. If the good stuff is quite good and the bad stuff is really bad, surely the good stuff is going to take over at some point, right? Maybe we keep watching and wishing it will improve to justify our obsession with it. “See, The Morning Show got full-on excellent in its last two episodes. Phew! Guess I don’t have bad taste after all.” (P.S.: The last two episodes are really good.)
But my obsession kicked in before I felt any need to justify it. Actually, I still don’t need to justify it. There are a lot of reasons why The Morning Show is enjoyable from the very beginning, like the glossy, glam aesthetic it brings to working in TV news. Like Sex and the City and Younger, The Morning Show makes New York media seem like an exciting endeavor. Car services pick you up and drop you off. People go to fancy fundraisers and sing Sondheim songs together. Cory and Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) get put up for seemingly indeterminate periods in nice hotels. Mitch (Steve Carell) lives in a house outside the city that looks like it ate ten other houses. And Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) has a drool-worthy penthouse with a view of seemingly every pocket of New York and, possibly, some sections of Canada. Whether this is an accurate reflection of reality or not — given the high-profile, high-paying nature of these people’s jobs, maybe it is a little? — the show is a way of living vicariously in those apartments and houses and hotels.
Around episode four, I also became fully invested in finding out what would happen next to these characters, an impulse that sprang, ironically, from the show’s more preposterous plot points. Would Bradley Jackson, thrust into a co-host position despite having no national news experience, actually hang on to her job for ten episodes? I wanted to know the answer even though the idea that she landed the job in the first place still doesn’t make a ton of sense. Would Mitch actually make a public move to salvage his reputation even though that seems like a terrible idea? As good as Carell is, I don’t actually care all that much about Mitch, and yet I still wanted to know the answer to that, too. Will we ever get a clear handle on what, exactly, Mitch did and how much it matches up (or doesn’t) with his claim that all of his sexual encounters were consensual? The Morning Show’s insistence on taking its time to resolve that issue made me crave answers and keep watching in the hope of getting them, even if I am not sure it worked entirely from a broader narrative standpoint. (I’ll have more to say about this once the season has ended.)
The series has a gonzo, anything-can-happen vibe because it packs in so many story lines while often making its lead characters’ behavior seem arbitrary at best and nonsensical at worst. In addition to the primary story lines about the fallout from Mitch’s dismissal and the evolving relationship between Bradley and Alex, The Morning Show packs in side plots about Alex’s marriage to a man whose most discernible personality trait is being British, Bradley’s family back in West Virginia, and a weekend co-anchor (Desean Henderson) who’s frustrated because he didn’t inherit Mitch’s job, all of which are extraneous and/or get backburnered because there are too many other matters to address. You know how lamb that’s cooked on a spit in a Greek restaurant sometimes looks like it’s gathering more mass as it spins? That’s what The Morning Show is: television that keeps spinning and somehow accumulating more meat.
The motivations of the characters often don’t track from scene to scene. Alex, in one moment, loathes Bradley. In another, it seems like she genuinely likes her and wants to mentor her. Mitch is so mad about being forced to resign that he smashes a very nice TV in episode one, yet by the end of episode five, he’s giggling with Alex when she refers to him as a sexual predator. Clearly the writers are trying to keep us off balance so that we will be less quick to judge Mitch. But these choices, which sometimes seem compelling within a single scene, make it hard to take the show seriously, even though it’s asking us to do that.
And yet it’s that very WTF element that makes the show impossible to turn off. Because it’s erratic, it’s also completely unpredictable. Will I get a serious confrontation between Alex and her bosses, or will I suddenly see Billy Crudup singing Sondheim? Who knows?
That attitude seems to have liberated the actors to tear into the material from a purely emotional, in-the-moment standpoint. Even when Alex’s abrupt changes of heart make little sense as written, Aniston is so convincing that I almost believe what I’m hearing and seeing. Crudup delivers a far more low-key performance, but one that’s just as effective because I never know what the hell he’s going to say or do next. What Carell does with Mitch is really interesting in that, as much as his character conjures up Matt Lauer, there are times when you can really see the Michael Scott in him: Like Michael, Mitch has no sense of what proper workplace behavior looks like, but in Mitch that cluelessness is damaging, whereas in Michael it’s a reflection of his dimwittedness. There are times when Carell even says things in a Michael Scott–ish way that makes me think he’s inviting us to see the toxic male connective tissue between a rube of a paper-company boss and a powerful man abusing his authority for selfish reasons. Take the last scene of episode five, when Mitch declares while driving alone, “You’re going down, muthafucka,” the “muthafucka” being Fred the network president. He says it with the same inflection that he would have said it on The Office, except here it is ominous.
Then there’s Mark Duplass, who, as Chip, the producer perpetually begging for just five seconds to himself, is the most believable character in the series. He’s a straight man in a lot of ways, the character who seems most resigned to his fate and exhausted by everything. Chip is the one person who seems like someone I either know or will eventually meet in the news business.
Being that real and recognizable is an asset, but it’s confusing on a show that’s often a departure from reality. Maybe that’s why The Morning Show is ultimately so compelling: Conflicting ideas and motivations and messages keep threatening to collide, but then they don’t, not entirely.
People say that everyone loves a train wreck, and perhaps that’s true. But The Morning Show isn’t a train wreck. It’s a train that keeps threatening to run off the rails, then rights itself, then threatens to run off them again. Who could ever look away from that?