The Morning Show, an award-winning AppleTV+ mini-series, is inspired by Brian Stelter’s book about Matt Lauer and the Today Show. Dominant themes and subplots focus on the vile, abject humiliation involved in corporate politics, gender roles, and sexual predation.
In the opening scene, co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) has just been fired for sexual harassment and possible assault, leaving his co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) without her onscreen partner of the past fifteen years. Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a West Virginian small-town reporter, is covering a coal mine protest. When a protester knocks down her cameraman, Bradley furiously grabs him by the collar, challenging him on his ignorance of the coal mine industry. The altercation is filmed on a cell phone and goes viral. Invited on The Morning Show by producer Corey Ellison (Billy Crudup), Bradley gives a stunning defense against an irritated and jealous Alex.
Alex is aware of the constant need to be “entertaining”. She knows the network’s politics– a competing network’s nipping at The Morning Show’s ratings–and that she may have a “sell-by” date fast approaching. In a precarious position to renew her contract, Alex impulsively names Bradley as her new on-air co-anchor. But will the addition of Bradley as her co-anchor improve the show’s ratings as America’s favorite morning show or will Bradley endanger Alex’s position and power?
Maggie Brener, a journalist at New York magazine (Marcia Gay Harden), suspects a behind-the-scenes coverup of Mitch Kessler’s sexual predation, the darker side of the network’s public image. Powerful but vulnerable men at every level are desperate to hang on to their jobs: the smarmy and frightened producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass), the Macchiavellian Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) in charge of the news department, and the CEO Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin). The entire C-suite is in intense survival mode to prevent their house of cards from collapsing.
All episodes have nuanced character arcs. For example, some of Mitch’s male co-workers, in a state of disbelief at the accusations against Mitch, find him funny and simply flirtatious. Women claim unregretted sexual encounters with him–or so they publicly tell their associates. We see Mitch in excruciating self-pity, unreflective and egomaniacal, thinking he’s just unlucky to be a powerful man held accountable for using his “seductive” powers. He cannot comprehend how he is cruel and brutal, defying any true communication with women. As one survivor– Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)–tries to explain: “I remember what happened differently from you.”
This high-stakes drama is dialed up in almost every scene in every episode, undoubtedly influenced by the controversies of the #MeToo wake-up calls alarming the nation. “It’s like a tightrope act where you think they’re going to fall.” Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
The entire cast exceeds expectations, an ensemble that, at times, seems like a therapy session, particularly for the two main actors, Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon. Aniston has a difficult road to navigate: Her character Alex is both sympathetic and complicated. She may have enabled Mitch and looked the other way, partly out of fear and denial. Alex is not always a great ally to other women, either, because she has come to feel she has no allies herself. In a state of constant high alert, Alex is determined to remain in control of her own life. Bradley –in a role made for Reese Witherspoon–also has to express both her character’s inward and outward struggles, coming from a highly dysfunctional and damaging family. Her fiery ambition and courage to make the world a better place are her only escape.
Steve Carell continues to stretch his dramatic range as he traverses the unenviable terrain of mining the psyche of a sexual predator, who validates his actions as “extracurricular sex” instead of traumatizing. In a pivotal scene Mitch is flustered for the first time when a filmmaker (played by Martin Short), facing similar allegations, justifies his actions by saying: “There’s nothing sexy about consent.” The close-up on Carell’s face is classic.
As both the main actors and executive producers, Anniston and Witherspoon are playing against type: their ingrained images as America’s Sweethearts. In The Morning Show they are stand-ins for women everyone thinks they know, but don’t. As Alex says, “Sometimes women can’t ask for control. So they have to take it” — and the show works best when they do.
The Morning Show is a cultural reckoning of #MeToo. Current events have marked a radical shift in our cultural outlook regarding sexual harassment, the abuse of power, and the silencing of women’s voices. All are bravely tackled in The Morning Show.
Availability: AppleTV+–available for a 7-day free trial.
Note: Brian Stelter, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV
Note 2: Warnings about sexual violence are given for Episode 8 and the F-word is used throughout the series.