“How could this happen? I made more money than God.”
“God didn’t violate his morals clause.” –Exchange between a deposed network anchor and an attorney in “The Morning Show.”
It’s impossible to watch the premiere episode of “The Morning Show,” one of the shiny new series launching Friday on the new AppleTV+ streaming service, and not think of the “Today” show and the Matt Lauer scandal.
A bearded Steve Carell plays one Mitch Kessler, the handsome, charming, likable mainstay of the UBA network’s flagship morning show, titled, um, “The Morning Show.”
For some 15 years, Mitch and his “TV spouse,” the equally popular Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), have been morning program royalty (though the ratings have been slipping lately) — but it all explodes when the network summarily fires Mitch for sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Mitch cries foul. The affairs were all consensual! His wife (Embeth Davidtz) listens to Mitch’s whining and coolly informs him she’s picking up the kids from school, taking them to the Hamptons and oh by the way, getting a divorce.
Meanwhile, a blindsided Alex goes on national television, struggles to keep her composure and says, “There are consequences in life…and while I will miss the Mitch I thought I knew with all of my heart, I am proud to work on a network and live in a country that upholds consequences …”
And off we go on a rollercoaster ride about the inner workings and off-camera Machiavellian maneuverings of big-time network TV in the modern era; the eternal struggle to balance a time-sucking career and something resembling a personal life (especially for women), and the uphill battle to win the hearts and minds and trust of viewers when it seems as if half the country believes journalists are pathological liars hell-bent on delivering “fake news” to champion their particular political beliefs.
I’ve seen the reports saying Apple is spending a total of $300 million for two ordered seasons of “The Morning Show,” which translates to an average of $15 million an episode.
Wow. It’s a good-looking show with high production values, and no doubt a healthy chunk of that budget is going toward the salaries for A-list stars Aniston, Carell and Reese Witherspoon — but it’s not as if we’re seeing CGI dragons flying through the skies, and epic battle sequences on elaborately constructed location sets.
It’s a show about TV, set primarily in Manhattan. And while the content and “binge-ability” factor improves with each of the three episodes I screened, “The Morning Show” doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of the Showtime series “The Loudest Voice” or the Aaron Sorkin poetry of HBO’s “The Newsroom.” It’s more along the lines of the solid but underachieving “Sports Night” TV series from the late 1990s.
As someone who has been a co-host or contributor on a few live morning shows in Chicago dating back to the mid-1990s (and a guest on “Today,” among other network and national cable programs), I didn’t see any glaring mistakes in the depiction of the nuts-and-bolts workings of big-time, high-stakes, desperate-to-be-relevant-and-viral live TV. Everything about the workplace atmosphere of “The Morning Show” feels right, from the control room to the plexiglass-framed displays lining the hallways, telling the history of the program, to the constant and cynical mantra that the on-air team and the viewers are all “family.”
Less plausible is the manner in which Reese Witherspoon’s brassy, foul-mouthed, self-destructively impulsive Bradley Jackson is crowbarred into the proceedings.
Bradley is working for a conservative regional cable network in the South when she gets into a tussle with a protester at a coal mine and goes off on him — a moment that goes viral and draws more than 5 million views on YouTube.
Cory Ellison, the oily and duplicitous president of the news division at UBA, directs his ambitious star booker Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to track down Bradley and bring her up for an interview with Alex, which goes spectacularly sideways when Alex (rightfully) criticizes Bradley for neglecting her responsibilities as a neutral journalist and allowing herself to become part of the story.
So, what does Ellison do? He hires the raw, rough-and-tumble Bradley to join Alex on the sacred “Morning Show” sofa. Maybe that’ll shake things up and show the millennials and advertisers there’s still some relevant juice in the ol’ network morning program tank!
As we’d expect, Aniston and Witherspoon are electric in their scenes together. Each has been through a LOT, personally and professionally, and they know as women in their 40s in an age-obsessed, image-obsessed game that they should be supporting one another — but there’s also an instant, undeniable rivalry.
The always likable Carell is perfectly cast as the disgraced Mitch Kessler. We roll our eyes when he screams, “I had affairs, since when is that a crime?” and says he’s not some monster like a certain former Hollywood mogul, but as Mitch gears up to sue the network and fight back, his story grows more compelling. (Martin Short is brilliant in a cameo as a Woody Allen-esque director who thinks he’s going to bond with Mitch — but Mitch is horrified when the director shares details of HIS wrongdoing.)
When Alex manages to evade detection by the press gathered outside Mitch’s house and has her chance to confront him, she berates him and pours her heart out and wants to smack him, but also can’t deny she feels for him. The scene represents some of the finest work in Aniston’s career. It’s a fine piece of real, authentic acting.
After three episodes, “The Morning Show” has yet to consistently achieve that same level of authenticity, but the arrow is pointing in the right direction.
Also debuting on Apple TV+ this Friday:
‘For All Mankind’
If every episode of “For All Mankind” reached the level of the first 20 minutes of the series premiere, I’d be hailing it as one of the outstanding shows of the year.
It’s the summer of 1969, and man is about to land on the moon. The whole world is watching the grainy footage as a man emerges from the lunar module and plants a flag.
A Soviet flag.
In the tradition of the Amazon Studios series “The Man in the High Castle,” this is an alternate American history story in which we finished second in the race to the moon and the space race kept on going — oh, and Ted Kennedy became president, because he never went to Chappaquiddick.
You get the idea.
It’s a brilliant premise, expertly rendered in those opening moments (we hear the voice of “Nixon” on tape, ranting about the Russians beating us to the moon), but things slow down after that.
Still, this is a beautifully shot series, featuring stellar work from an outstanding cast including Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman and Sarah Jones. Rating: ★★★
The wonderful Hailee Steinfeld stars in a bold but only intermittently entertaining re-imagining of the life of the poet Emily Dickinson, set in the appropriate mid-19th century time period but featuring 21st century flourishes from synth-pop music to dialogue out of “Modern Family” to the casting of Wiz Khalifa as Emily’s imaginary muse.
Cheerfully anachronistic throughout, “Dickinson” is actually inspired by nuggets of historical fact (as well as historical speculation) about the famously reclusive, posthumously celebrated poet. With echoes of films such as Sofia Coppola’s similarly genre-jumbled 2006 film “Marie Antoinette,” and a sparkling and energetic performance by Steinfeld in the lead role, “Dickinson” is a bit too scattered and tries a bit too hard in the early going, but the potential for something breezy and lightly addictive is there. Rating: ★★1⁄2