If you’ve ever wondered how a TV show might keep moving forward after sending a main character careening to his death off the side of a winding road in Northern Italy, The Morning Show is here with an exciting and innovative answer: Send another character to low Earth orbit. The third season of Apple TV+’s big scripted drama opens with Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy preparing to take part in a Blue Origin–style rocket launch as part of a story on a Jeff Bezos–esque tech billionaire, played perhaps too handsomely by Jon Hamm. Soon enough, the show introduces complications by way of Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson, who’s desperate to report on a story about abortion access. I won’t spoil how the episode’s zagging plot unfolds from there, but suffice it to say that by the end of The Morning Show’s season-three premiere, you get to witness an A-list actress floating in zero gravity, awed by the majesty of space.
That’s a bonkers way to begin a season of television, but it’s a good way of setting the tone for a show that’s best enjoyed as a manic, luxurious soap opera. Back in 2019, The Morning Show helped launch Apple TV+, pitching itself in the mode of a prestige cable TV drama, amped with movie stars and the kind of budget made possible by a parent company that’s more interested in selling iPhones. With its initial framework of Me Too allegations against Steve Carell’s ersatz Matt Lauer, the show purported to take on serious, of-the-moment issues but faltered in its execution, tending to fall back on the notion that the internationally famous have feelings too. (Well, consider the messengers.) But even then, the show had a certain lurid quality, creating some interesting friction against that A-list packaging. It came out in Aniston’s performance as Alex Levy, a beloved star of morning TV who despises her lovers and haters equally, and in Billy Crudup’s high-strung Doberman of a network executive, Cory Ellison, whose plans to reformat the fictional UBA revolve around the notion that “chaos is the new cocaine.” Cory himself might’ve given notes on the second season, which took sniffs of plot coke — Bradley dyed her hair blonde and then started dating Julianna Margulies — but was hamstrung by two equally bad attempts at weighty importance: setting the entire season in the three months before March 2020, and keeping Carell involved, moping around his character’s Italian villa in a dead-end plot about what society should do with the canceled. Despite that, the season accelerated toward the strangely and undeniably compelling: Alex Levy going live from her apartment with COVID-19 in order to record a show that will save UBA’s streaming service.
The Morning Show’s third season picks up the baton from there and keeps running straight into weird and wild post-vaccination America. Following a significant time jump, Bradley is working the evening news desk while Alex remains on the titular Morning Show alongside a new anchor played by Nicole Beharie (good, but underutilized). UBA is drowning in debt, so Cory is hard at work scheming to have someone buy them out — thus, Alex’s flirtation with Jon Hamm. Further complications in Cory’s dealmaking ensue when the network becomes the target of a version of the Sony hack and secrets start going public, leading to an absurd but its own way damning episode where everyone at the network tries to leverage the situation for their own gain. The Morning Show pulls enough from contemporary news stories to resemble a 2020s update of The Newsroom, but with a funhouse-mirror slant toward the gleefully amoral rather than the Sorkin-ly preachy. The characters on The Morning Show are in the business of making sunny, inspirational TV, but the show has wound its way to a tonal sweet spot that’s more cynical and chilly. Don’t look to any of these characters for competence; instead, enjoy how they kick each other in the face in their scramble for power.
It helps that The Morning Show is more in on the joke this time around. Charlotte Stoudt has stepped in as the series’ new showrunner (creator Kerry Ehrin is still on as a consultant), and freed from the second season’s grim march toward a pandemic, the dialogue tends to be sharper and wittier, culled from the kind of corporate-insider repartee that you might hear from a guest on The Town podcast. (That, or I’ve developed a Stockholm syndrome–like affection for updates about the UBA programming slate; their Donner Party series is thriving!) In one episode, Greta Lee’s Stella asks Cory why he green-lit a Kissinger biopic from Aaron Sorkin, to which he responds “because I hate myself.” Lee, whose star is on the rise thanks to the success of Past Lives, also just gets more to do this season, facing off against Crudup over the fate of UBA and also against Jon Hamm, because their characters share some ludicrously plotted backstory. In every scene, she gives off the energy of someone thinking, Wow, isn’t it funny that I’m on this TV show? Which is exactly what you want from the whole series.
But while much of The Morning Show has found its own shambolic groove, it still has to contend with writing around a central character who has never worked and goes by the name of Bradley Jackson. She’s supposed to be this sorta-upstart (but not young), sorta-conservative (but pro-abortion) outsider shaking up the media Establishment, but the series has never managed to be specific enough about her identity to make any sense. They’ve tried making her blonde. They’ve tried making her queer (we do get to see Julianna Margulies’s power-lesbian ranch, thank goodness). This season, they even try incorporating her into a flashback to the January 6 insurrection. Still she remains an enigma, annoyingly preachy and yet politically and psychologically incoherent — not a person as much as a placeholder reading “Reese Witherspoon performance here.” The best thing the show can manage is to shift Bradley off to the side, making her a tertiary character for many of the episodes, while the real drama occurs between Crudup, Aniston, Lee, and the rest of the characters still working on the morning show itself. When Alex and Bradley do eventually meet up again, as the levers and pulleys of serialized drama demand, they have to acknowledge in dialogue that they’ve barely interacted.
Sending off a main character that’s never quite worked on their own side quest is a tried and true television strategy — think of True Blood casting around for ways to make Sookie interesting — but it’s wild to see it happen to a character played by Witherspoon, who, as both a star and producer, has led the recent A-list-ification of television. Her production company, Hello Sunshine (which does The Morning Show, of course), has been involved with glitzy hits for most of the major streaming services, from Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere to Amazon’s Daisy Jones and the Six, the kinds of series that aim toward the upper-middlebrow notion of being “more like a X-hour movie.” But even if your cast and branding are expensive, eventually you have to admit you’re playing by the rules of television after all. The Morning Show, especially this season, embodies this grand battle between legacy and new media — made by a tech company, but falling back on the old modes of traditional serialized drama. The series is fascinating not for its innovation, but for how it has managed to morph into a bog-standard primetime soap in the glossiest of packaging, and become so much more watchable for it. Prestige streaming TV is dead, and Bradley Jackson is in low Earth orbit.