Here’s an unexpected instance of #MeToo contrarianism: Steve Carell taking some of his nice-guy capital and spending it on a Matt Lauer–like character who feels that he’s the victim of arbitrarily changed standards. All this character did (so he claims) was have consensual extramarital affairs with underlings at his Today-like program. That used to be allowed. Didn’t everyone know what he was up to? Nevertheless, he finds himself fired in the middle of the night, hours before he’s meant to go on the air.
“I am as innocent as any straight, middle-aged man there is,” says Carell’s character, Mitch, in the new one-hour drama The Morning Show. “The only problem is, that seems to be illegal these days. This is McCarthyism.”
His producer (Mark Duplass) chimes in, “We’re being too fast to judge men in the court of public opinion. I agree with you. The whole MeToo movement is probably an overcorrection for centuries of bad behavior that more enlightened men like you and me had nothing to do with.”
That’s not enough for Carell’s character: “At first they came for the rapists and I did not speak up because I am not a rapist. And then they came for the powerful men, and you did not speak out because you are not a powerful man. But what are you going to do when they come for the ordinary, everyday run-of-the-mill creep like you, Chip?” Whether you find that outrageous or merely common sense, this is smart, bold writing.
The Morning Show, of which I’ve seen the first three episodes, is the big-bucks centerpiece of Apple’s attempt to become the new HBO. Its streaming service, Apple TV+, debuts on November 1 with a (small) slate of original series and films. Apple has said its goal is quality, not quantity, and as it is sitting on a mountain of money (more than $200 billion), it is free to go to extreme lengths to deliver: The budget for the first two seasons of this show is reportedly a preposterous $300 million. There are no dragons or zombie battles; this is a show about people talking. Its leads, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, are said to be pocketing $1 million each per episode. Still, the show isn’t costing you much, if anything; Apple is making an entire year of the service available free to recent buyers of its products. Otherwise it’s $5 a month.
That’s why critics shouldn’t review the budget of anything: The question is really whether The Morning Show is worth your time. It is: It’s an engaging, reflective look at complicated characters, at least in the first three hours that I’ve seen. Carell’s is the most intriguing of the three principals but there’s also a great hook to Aniston’s anchor Alex. What if Savannah Guthrie really liked Matt Lauer and was devastated when he got fired? What if she also didn’t think his sexual past was disqualifying? Aniston has even more likability in the bank than Carell does, but she plainly doesn’t want to be cutely sardonic anymore (though it’s what she’s best at). So her character is a control-freak/bitch-queen who rages at people in her limo one minute then poses as America’s morning princess on the red carpet 30 seconds later.
Witherspoon, as a feisty field reporter (people keep calling her “conservative,” but none of the writers can bear to give her anything actually conservative to say, and she sounds like the Sierra Club when she talks about coal), has the least interesting role: “Bradley Jackson,” who is known for once dropping two F-bombs on live TV and is therefore known as “Two F***s Jackson,” a sobriquet the show’s writers find funnier than it is. Bradley is more or less a theft of Holly Hunter’s character from Broadcast News: tiny, working-class, with a chip on her shoulder and a bossy determination to keep the news real. She wears leather motorcycle jackets to show us she’s not like the pampered princess Aniston plays. A more intriguing figure is the charming, duplicitous head of the network played by Billy Crudup with an Almost Famous smile and a secret plan to rid himself of Alex (who is getting a bit old for TV). “Watching a beloved woman’s breakdown is timeless American entertainment,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. Crudup is perfect in this role.
Alex and Mitch were broadcast partners for 15 years and even had a brief affair, which Mitch calls “a thing” but which she derides as “two times you got on top of me.” In the wake of his departure, she realizes her hand is both stronger and weaker than it used to be amid contract renegotiations, but she has a scheme to turn the tables on her bosses. In the third episode, both she and Bradley deliver I-am-woman-hear-me-roar speeches, which fall flat; a show like this needs to immerse us in the details of its world instead of lapsing into women’s-magazine clichés about how tough it is for a woman on the job.
Getting bogged down in pandering (the show’s intended audience is obviously upscale middle-aged women) is one potential trap; another is Advanced Sorkin Syndrome — excruciatingly cute dialogue that sounds endlessly massaged by a writer smirking at his own cleverness. So far the show’s most unbearably Sorkiny moment arrives when a young P.A. mimics Veruca Salt while crawling onto the lap of the middle-aged weatherman twice her age. Less of that would be welcome.
With its lush locations — black-tie parties, apartments the size of airport terminals — The Morning Show could also turn into a soapy fantasyland. Its cast and its characters are such strong assets, though, that I have hopes that it’ll continue to be interesting. Perhaps it will live up to its premise, which is Broadcast News with less idealism and more ruthlessness.