emergency discussion

What the Hell, The Morning Show?

Photo: Erin Simkin

Occasionally it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. This time, Jen Chaney, Kathryn VanArendonk, and Jackson McHenry sit down together to consider the big, bewildering event that closes this week’s episode of The Morning Show and what it says about the series’s scatterbrained second season.

Kathryn VanArendonk: We are gathered here today to discuss something truly difficult to fathom: the most recent episode of season two of The Morning Show, titled “La Amara Vita.” Obviously we’re going to kick things off with the most important topic, which is, “Hey, a game of Trivial Pursuit seems nice!”

Jackson McHenry: Never has a palatial estate in Lake Como that Steve Carell has been green-screened into seemed more like a generic Airbnb than when he and Jennifer Aniston are playing Trivial Pursuit with woefully out-of-date cards. But yes, in the midst of a personal crisis and the onset of a pandemic, Alex Levy does indeed fly to Italy (the role of Italy is played by Southern California) because she wants to confront her former co-host about one specific detail in a book about them. And when she gets there, she’s happy to just drink wine and play Trivial Pursuit for a bit. They don’t even put pieces on a board! They just read the cards! Wild!

Kathryn VanArendonk: To be fair, that’s also how my family plays Trivial Pursuit, and this is very exciting representation for us.

Jen Chaney: The board is actually open and on the table though, which is the weird thing. But I feel like we need to put the car in reverse (too soon?) and talk about why Alex Levy goes to Italy in the first place. Here is my theory: The writers of The Morning Show really wanted to build an episode around Carell and Aniston and became hell-bent on doing so, logic be damned. Mitch rightly asks why Alex couldn’t have called or emailed. Her answer does not satisfy me. She’s afraid of it being in the cloud? Then later she says she didn’t have his number. How does one go from “I don’t have his number” to “Welp, guess I’ll just have to charter a very expensive plane in the middle of a pandemic and fly to Milan”?

Kathryn VanArendonk: Based on this episode, I think the only logical assessment of Alex’s behavior is that she has a real fondness for staring through big metal gates, and when she saw how this was playing out, she knew she had to jump on it! But you’re right, Jen — truly everything about Alex and Mitch’s time together in this strange quarantine estate is baffling. (One of my favorite moments is when Mitch passive-aggressively leaves her a full breakfast on the table with a note about how he’s never going to see her in the house, but then he shows up two minutes later?) The thing is, the world doesn’t make any more sense outside of the estate either! Like the Italian police officer trying very hard to enforce a lockdown by … offering to escort Alex onto an international flight?

Jackson McHenry: “Signora, there is a lockdown” is one of the funnier lines in the entire show. But yes, it feels like this episode is the mutant outgrowth of two misconceptions by The Morning Show this season. One, that the audience wants to see more of Steve Carell. I think we had about enough of him moping about his sexual abuse last season, but perhaps AppleTV thought he was too big of a star to write off early. Two, that the best way to deal with the pandemic is to inch closer and closer to mid-March over the course of ten episodes, yet without having the pandemic hit the characters. So now we have a whole episode set in Italy in the midst of lockdown with the threat of COVID in the air, and yet the stakes and plot are all about Alex being mad that a reference to them having sex exists in a book nobody will read because it’s coming out as a pandemic hits!

Jen Chaney: You have touched on something important here, Jackson, and that is the fact that nothing anyone does in this episode makes any sense at all. Alex flies all the way to Italy to get a written statement announcing that Mitch did not have sex with her — a statement, to your point, that no one will give a shit about during COVID — and yet she is initially willing to leave Mitch’s house with only his phone number to stay in touch. Seriously, she’s just gonna bounce after being there for ten minutes. I won’t go more than 20 minutes from my own home if I think I’m only going to be some place for just a few minutes, let alone another continent.

Another thing about this episode is that I don’t think I have seen people saying more words that mean nothing on a TV show. This is an opportunity for Mitch and Alex to have a real conversation about what he did, but instead they dance to “Stand by Me” in Italian, and his big insight is that being canceled really makes you reflect on your life. Maybe that’s the point, that Mitch didn’t learn a damn thing, but this is a whole lot of arguing and gabbing to reach that conclusion.

Kathryn VanArendonk: I suppose they also use this time to make clear that they did actually have some kind of sexual relationship in the past, something the show has hinted at but has remained in the territory of “is this just gossip or did it actually happen.” Unfortunately I had no idea how I was supposed to feel about that either, because on the one hand Alex says she thought for a while that maybe she’d gotten pregnant? And she was excited about it, and Mitch seems quite tender in that exchange? But earlier, in one of the scenes where they’re fighting (and keep in mind that at no point is it clear why they are or are not angry with each other), Mitch spits out, “I don’t think what you did with me really qualifies as sex.” Which did leave me with some alarmingly specific questions about what they … did?

I think what also underlines the constant sense of disorientation here, beyond none of it making sense, is that the score can’t decide whether it’s doing goofy humor music or sad romantic music. More than once it veers all the way into a Grey’s Anatomy–esque pizzicato-strings-for-jokes kind of energy, and it is completely bizarre.

Jackson McHenry: What doesn’t qualify as sex but can make you pregnant? A cursed riddle of the sphinx. But yes, I think there’s a larger sense that the show doesn’t quite have a handle on how much it wants us to sympathize with Mitch and Alex in general. With Mitch, there are moments where it wants us to see the wholeness of his person, I guess, and reckon with cancel culture or something, but then it veers back into condemning him. With Alex, it sometimes feels like it’s trying to cut through her own blindness about her self-image and remind you how isolating and self-deluding a very famous white woman can be in her victimhood, but other times, it tries to wring sympathy from that sense of victimhood.

I guess we should get to the end of the episode at this point, but as a case in point: As Mitch veers off a winding mountain road in Italy, seemingly to his death, The Morning Show plays a set of melancholy flashbacks. I would respect the show more if they just committed to making this a big, pulpy twist instead of reaching for pathos in that moment.

Jen Chaney: Mitch’s decision to let go when he almost gets run off the road is not supported at all by what’s come before it. He says early in the episode that he should go back to the States to spend time with his kids. He’s just had sex with Paula, and she is waiting for her cigarettes. He’s obviously upset about what’s been written about him in the book and how his image will be tarnished further, but there’s nothing to support the decision that he would opt to die rather than try to veer his car away from that cliff. It just felt like the episode needed to kill off Steve Carell, and they ran out of time and were like, you know what, just drive off the cliff.

Kathryn VanArendonk: This, at least, is an impulse from The Morning Show that does make sense. They did need to get rid of Steve Carell. Killing him makes, I guess, as much sense as anything else would’ve at this point. But all of the absurdity and strangeness we’ve been poking at so far is also the result of this show not realizing that Carell needed to leave a long, long time ago. There’s been no reason for him to be as heavily featured as he has been this season, and every time the show has skipped back to do some Italy storytelling, it’s been quite clear that they could not figure out how to keep Mitch around any longer. So yes, they needed him to be gone, and yes, this is probably the most Morning Show way they could’ve possibly done it. Although I agree — none of the storytelling leads you to understand why he’s taking his hands off the wheel at that point. Or why he’s going to get cigarettes at all, because, again, is this a coronavirus pandemic or isn’t it?!

Jackson McHenry: To have a character die in Italy while “Signora, there is a lockdown” and yet not have the character die of COVID. Only on The Morning Show! I do have to admire the sheer idiosyncrasy of this choice. But yes, if only this all had happened earlier in the season. So much happens in this season, and yet all the Carell business has stalled until now. We only have three episodes left for the show to engage with the consequences, which I can only imagine they’ll do in a deeply earnest and thoughtful and not-at-all surface-level way.

Jen Chaney: To kill Mitch off but not with COVID: It’s called bravery.

Kathryn VanArendonk: Like Paola doing whatever her anti-cancel culture documentary is! Bravery!

Jackson McHenry: Bravo! Chef’s kiss! Various Italian hand gestures and phrases!

Jen Chaney:  I agree with both of you that Mitch should not have been in this season at all, and he probably only was because Carell had signed on to do it. So they needed to get rid of the character. They just did it in the most laughably abrupt and inelegant way possible, but that’s been The Morning Show’s jam for much of this season. I guess my larger question, which I actually wrote in my notes while watching, is what is this show? Like, what does it ultimately want us to think about Mitch? What is its point of view about so-called cancel culture? One of my big problems with this series is that it wants to come across as a serious drama that tackles major issues, but it doesn’t really “tackle” anything. It just talks around shit until the running time of an episode is gone. I feel that frustration really profoundly in this episode.

Kathryn VanArendonk: Actually, Mitch does tell us exactly how cancel culture works, and he does it in this episode. “I have not been canceled,” he tells Alex. “There is only one entity that can have the power to do that, and that is the great programmer in the sky.”

Jen Chaney: That’s true, but then when he sees that news report about the book — because, again, that’s what would be a major story on the news during this time period — he’s immediately furious. When the anchor says the book suggests that Mitch targeted Black women in his sexual pursuits, Mitch says, “You don’t think I did that, did you? I’m attracted to them. I’m old enough to remember when that was considered progressive.” He is immediately defensive, not to mention racist. (Talking about Black women as if they are a monolith: Cool choice, Mitch.) If he really doesn’t think he can be canceled, he wouldn’t care. That’s the thing about The Morning Show: It tells you one thing about a character in one scene then changes its mind a few scenes later so you’re not sure what to think. And not in a “Oh, this is intriguing” way but in a “What the hell is this show even talking about??” kind of way.

Jackson McHenry: The Morning Show’s treatment of race, like its approach to COVID, seems very much the result of someone in the writers’ room saying, in mid-2020, “Hey, maybe we should throw this in?” and the show incorporating it after the fact. But yes, the great programmer in the sky does seem to have finally canceled Mitch, which, in a way, does seem like an insight into The Morning Show’s theology: There is no God, only television. No morals, no right and wrong, no heroes, just people who keep doing things so that you keep watching.

Jen Chaney: People who just keep doing things so that you just keep watching: That’s basically the entire premise of The Morning Show.

Kathryn VanArendonk: Can’t wait to tune in next week when Alex flies back to America and surely no global pandemic ramifications follow her there.

What the Hell, The Morning Show?