“The Morning Show”–Wake Up America

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.

“Little Fires Everywhere”–Incendiary at Its Best

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel by the same name. Reese Witherspoon (Elena)and Kerry Washington (Mia)  steal the show as mothers from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.  This is a suburban saga with a painfully close lens focused on the income gap, class, and racial divide we know only so well.  In the opening scene  a house in Shaker Heights is engulfed in an inferno.  Is it the target of arson?  We will find out.  The year is 1997.

Shaker Heights’s community ethos prides itself on its civic duty, open and liberal lifestyle, and a desirability that does not include anything unseemly, dangerous or grass exceeding six inches in length.  The unpleasant and the disastrous reside elsewhere.  The community’s bubble is impenetrable…until it isn’t.

Elena Richardson is a smart, highly educated suburban mother and Shaker Heights reporter who is also a perfectionist.  Problem is that one of her four teenage children does not meet her expectations, no matter how low the bar she begrudgingly sets for Isabelle (Izzy), her youngest.  The mother and daughter are toxic:  opposing forces of nature. Elena is a narcissist, so the kids are self-reflecting objects … little trophy children, all about what others think.  Izzy doesnt play Elena’s game  and, in return, Elena seems incapable of any love or empathy for her.

Mia is a very talented artist but she can be overly protective and possessive about her teenage daughter Pearl.  And Elena believes she is in control of her kids and her life, but she really knows very little about  her children.  Neither Elena nor Mia are allowed into their daughters’ worlds and conversely, their daughters do not know them. 

Each mother believes herself to be a good and decent parent because both have structured their lives to shield their daughters from failure.   Yet their sense of self is not challenged.  Both Elena and Mia want a family with strong connections and bonds, but the connecting and dividing are sometimes in the same moment.

Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood in all its pain, joy and self-denial, cutting to the bone.  Marriage, sexual identity, race and ethnicity are intertwined with the psychology of class and white privilege.

While Shaker Heights self-congratulatory residents believe they say all the correct things about race, their feelings of  superiority are subconsciously ingrained– in the way only wealthy white folks can be. The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to co-exist.   

There is no stammering and flailing in Little Fires Everywhere. Perhaps more than any other scene,  we see, in the final moments,   the human effort to want to get something right even after everything has gone wrong.  The dialog, acting and pacing are extraordinary. Witherspoon and Washington are at their best.

Note:  Available on Hulu streaming.  And for a fascinating interview with the author, Celeste Ng, on the book-to-screen adaptation, see the LA Times article.