As the highest-profile launch title for yet another upcoming streaming service, The Morning Show has more at stake than most new shows. If it's a hit, Apple TV+ announces its presence as a major player in the future of television. If it bombs, Apple TV+ can become Apple's biggest whiff since it forced us all to listen to U2. That would explain why Apple, which officially joins the streaming wars on Nov. 1, has done everything possible to make The Morning Show look like TV's next big thing.
Apple must think it has a hit on its hands, because it already committed to two seasons of the show, a move not unheard of for new networks, but one that comes with a lot of risk, both in terms of money and reputation. Apple also went deep into its Apple Pay accounts to afford its three A-list leads: Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston -- who both reportedly make $2 million per episode, or $20 million each over two 10-episode seasons -- and Steve Carell. And Apple recruited up-and-coming and established TV-making names -- creator Jay Carson, director Mimi Leder, executive producers Kerry Ehrin and Kristin Hahn -- to get the ship sailing.
But despite luring TV industry vets into its fold to get Apple TV+ off the ground, there's reasonable cause for caution: What the heck is a company that puts phones in watches doing making original television? The answer is obviously a picture of an Everest-sized mountain of money, but the lack of experience in making TV is evident all over The Morning Show, and it's proof that making good TV requires more than spending lots of dough, hiring famous people, and screaming, "Action!"
I don't even really know where to start with what The Morning Show is about, because it seems to want to be many things. Promotion will lead you to believe that The Morning Show is a feisty dramedy about the behind-the-scenes drama of TV's biggest morning show, à la Good Morning America or Live with [name and name], but the show wastes no time getting serious.
In the opening moments, Carell's character Mitch Kessler, the titular show's co-host, wakes up to discover he's been fired after reports of his sexual misconduct surface. The Morning Show, about a year too late, then becomes a soap box for the #MeToo movement with monologues spouting out talking points about safety in the workplace and the men who allowed the scandal to happen. (To be clear: This is a conversation that needs to continue to happen everywhere, but Apple's take feels dated and artificial rather than current and contributing to a solution.) Carell gets the unenviable task of playing the other side, calling his firing a witch hunt and saying #MeToo has gone too far (he claims the sex may have been extramarital, but it was consensual, so he's not "jerking off into a plant" like Weinstein). You'll need a few marathons of The Office to wipe that taste out of your mouth.
How did this come to be? The Hollywood Reporter says that during the development of The Morning Show,in late 2017, Matt Lauer was hit with a sexual misconduct scandal as host of the Today show, leading producers -- including Aniston and Witherspoon -- to change the script and add a #MeToo storyline. Carson was fired the following spring over creative differences, and Ehrin took over as showrunner.
What's left is a show that feels as though it's been victimized by a script that's made from a lot of control-x and control-v keystrokes, as the original idea was dismantled and put back together with tape and studio notes. The main draw here should be Aniston and Witherspoon as co-hosts of the same morning show, their rivalry driving drama and comedy from a premise that's perfectly suited for it. Beginning with the sex scandal gives us no time to share in America's shock over Mitch's behavior; there's no downfall to the character because he's already hit bottom when we meet him, wasting any opportunity for the character complexity that Mitch needs. He starts off as an ass, so we think of him as just an ass. (To be fair, his diatribes confirm that he is an ass.)
We also don't get to see how Aniston's Alex Levy was so blindsided by Mitch's behavior because we're left to take her word that they had great chemistry, something she repeats many times but would have been clearer if we got to see it for ourselves. And by ousting Carell so early, he's separated from the rest of the action to the point that it doesn't even feel like he's on the same show. In the first three episodes, he only gets one scene with his famous co-stars as he's spending most of his time secluded in his house, screaming at his agent, committing violence against his TV, and shouting that he did nothing wrong to anyone who will listen.
So where is Reese Witherspoon during all of this? Not much closer. Witherspoon plays Bradley Jackson -- yes all three characters have names that are typically male -- a small-town reporter with a burning rage for the truth. Her road to becoming co-host of The Morning Show (the show within the show) -- it's not a spoiler to say she gets the job -- takes some time and is finally made in a stupefying way, which also keeps her away from sharing a camera with Aniston. You can count the number of scenes she and Aniston are both in through the first three episodes on one hand (and you can count her scenes with Carell on zero hands). Why pay these people millions if you don't even use them together? Obviously Bradley joining The Morning Show means she'll be in more scenes with Aniston going forward, but for three hours, the three stars may as well be in three different series.
The Morning Show is actually best when it's similar to The Newsroom, presenting the chaos that goes into making a morning show and the complex politics and diva behavior that steer it. That's helped out by some solid supporting characters, like Billy Crudup as the scheming head of the network and Mark Duplass as the lead producer of the show, who provide most of the head-butting that we want to see from Alex and Bradley. (And once that feud begins in earnest, it's hard to see how Carell's character will fit in to the show; even his people advise laying low for a few years to let the scandal blow over.)
As the biggest title in Apple TV+'s launch library, The Morning Show's first impression was critical to not just the success of this show, but for a massive corporation that's already losing public favor as it tries to venture into an entertainment space that's outside its reasonable reach. (To be fair, I thought the same about Amazon, but have you seen Patriot and The Boys? Damn they're good!) Simplified storytelling and giving viewers what they signed up for -- Jen and Reese together 4ever -- would have benefitted The Morning Show. Future episodes may reward us with those, but as far as first impressions go, this Morning Show made me want to hit the snooze button.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
The Morning Show premieres with three episodes Friday, Nov. 1 on Apple TV+, which launches that same day.