Review: Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell round out the cast of this workplace drama that tackles the #MeToo era.
Alex Levy, Jennifer Aniston's strong, uncompromising character in new Apple TV Plus series The Morning Show, wears perfect clothes for kicking the asses of sexist male executives in this show that confronts the fallout of the #MeToo era. There are no skirts, or even power dresses. Even the bright red evening gown she wears for a black-tie event turns out to be a jumpsuit. The wardrobe choices here say a lot about Aniston's character, as does her gender-neutral name.
The 10-episode show, already confirmed for a second season, launches this Friday, Nov. 1, when Apple's streaming service goes live. At launch, three episodes will be available (the ones made available for review), followed by one new episode every Friday. Other highlights at launch include Jason Momoa in the sci-fi drama See and Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson, which puts a comedic spin on the life of poet Emily Dickinson.
At first sight you could mistake The Morning Show for an Aaron Sorkin creation. There's plenty of brisk walking and talking through the hallways of UBA, a fictional network that produces the The Morning Show. The Apple TV Plus series was actually created by Jay Carson (House of Cards) and developed by showrunner Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel). TV veteran Mimi Leder (ER, On The Basis of Sex) directs.
But this is no West Wing -- or even Sorkin's own TV-based dramas Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom. Here, the women rule. They also are numerous, diverse and have distinct personalities. "What is a typical woman?" asks Reese Witherspoon's character after being pigeonholed as an atypical one. Her character, Bradley Jackson, is described by her peers as a "conservative beauty queen who's more of a libertarian." Bradley isn't afraid to speak her mind and ends up sharing the screen with Alex when her male co-host is terminated.
Don't let Aniston's comedy past fool you into thinking this is a sitcom either. Just as this isn't a Sorkin show, it isn't Tina Fey's 30 Rock. Yes, there's a TV show within a TV show and a field mined for meta-references -- like when Billy Crudup's character, the shifty president of UBA's news division, reflects that unless broadcast TV gets reinvented it's going to get swallowed by tech giants.
But the setting of this show is more a comment on the recent scandals surrounding media figures like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Roger Ailes, than a choice to once again reveal how TV works and gets made. The Morning Show is a massively contemporary workplace drama about women in an often hostile industry. A story about how the moral compass established by the #MeToo movement has rocked everything, even the morning broadcast TV show you probably no longer watch.
Enter Steve Carell. The show starts while his character, TMS' co-host Mitch Kessler -- a man who doesn't know how to operate a Nespresso coffee machine because he's never had to make his own coffee -- gets fired for sexual misconduct. "Documented reports of what? That I had affairs?" Mitch whines, insisting he only had sex with a couple of production assistants. "Everything changed and no one sent me a memo," he complains.
The show addresses how the cultural landscape has been reshaped since people who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse started speaking up, and it wants viewers to consider what the characters are going through. All the characters. "I'll say it: We're being too fast to judge men in the court of public opinion," Mark Duplass' character opines to Mitch. Duplass plays Chip, an extremely stressed executive producer. "The whole #MeToo movement is probably an overcorrection for centuries of bad behavior that more enlightened men like me and you have nothing to do with," he adds.
The Morning Show examines all points of view in this situation, even those of the abusers or their sympathizers. But it also pinpoints where the moral line lies. I'd be quite surprised if, by the end of the season, it doesn't declare much more explicitly that Chip is wrong and there's no overcorrection here at all.
The series has an extremely strong cast rounded out by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Desean Terry, with guest appearances by Mindy Kaling, Marcia Gay Harden and Martin Short. But Aniston and Witherspoon are at the center of it, two strong actors and executive producers who take their careers extremely seriously, playing two journalists focused on being taken seriously and seizing agency.
"Sometimes women can't ask for control, so they have to take it. I want you to remember that," Alex tells her teenage daughter during a particularly tough moment.
Like the pants Alex wears and Bradley also favors for most of the show, the fact that the two protagonists have gender-neutral names is no coincidence. It's just one more rich detail in a show that demands analysis and critical thinking from viewers.
Does The Morning Show justify subscribing to Apple TV Plus? I was intrigued enough by the premise of the first episodes to at least see the remainder of the season. Whether I'd cancel the $4.99 monthly subscription after that will depend on what else Apple TV Plus offers that catches my attention in the upcoming month.
One thing is clear, though. I want to know whether Aniston's character keeps rocking pantsuits for the rest of the season.
Originally published Oct. 28.