How do you make a TV Show about making a TV Show even more self-serious than Aaron Sorkin did?
Somehow, Apple found a way.
Say what you like about Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom. The fact is, for all these shows could struggle against the sense that Sorkin was taking things far more seriously than the stories they were telling justified (Particularly Studio 60 with its heavy handed post-9/11ism and The Newsroom with its anvilicious – albeit justified – skewering of the modern news media), Sorkin at least understood that Television is supposed to be fun and the shows about it should be too.
AppleTV+ launched with its own spin on the “TV Show about making a TV Show” premise, this time a morning network news broadcast. Leading the cast are comedy royalty: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon & Steve Carell. The Morning Show was announced with a premise that drew immediate comparisons not only to The Newsroom, but also to Morning Glory – a marvellous Devil Wears Prada clone which is similarly focused on the production of a morning network newscast.
Sadly, the comparison is particularly misplaced with regards to Morning Glory, a full-on comedy. But even The Newsroom, for all its pretentious self-righteousness, is at its heart an Aaron Sorkin Show: a dramedy. The Morning Show on the other hand…Oh boy.
Imagine The Newsroom shorn of the goofiness of Don and Sloane. Think Studio 60 if literally every scene was one of its Emmy-bating moments of melodramatic existential dialogue. Think Sports Night with none of the self-deprecation.
It’s miserable. Everyone in The Morning Show is deeply, deeply unhappy. Everyone is angry and mean and petty and snide. Many of them have legitimate grievances but others (Like Carell’s anchor taken down by a sexual misconduct scandal) are wholly unsympathetic.
Which wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t for the undiluted self-importance. As an example, there is a character who literally tells Anniston’s that “America needs” her to – let’s be honest – recite the headlines from Twitter, fawn over the celebrity hawking a book or movie that day, hug some furry animals and pretend to listen to a chef giving a rough overview of a supposedly quick recipe.
The Newsroom was often guilty of this too, but it at least had the decency to undercut it, employing humour to reign in its characters pretensions. Studio 60 couched a lot of its similar pretentiousness in the setting: these are Hollywood comedians and executives with a total lack of perspective. The irony is self-evident (at least before the series endgame set in and the show became an even more transparent effort by Sorkin to tackle post-9/11 America the way he would have on The West Wing).
You could argue that The Morning Show‘s tone is a reflection of its era. There are themes here, like the #MeToo plot, that are worth exploring. And, certainly, not all shows need to be lighthearted. But The Morning Show‘s unremitting bleakness in its early going runs afoul of darkness-induced audience apathy. To wit: all these people are horrible, they are all miserable all the time, everything they do is unrelatable. So why should we care what happens to them?
By launching straight into the inciting conflict of its arc plot, the show introduces us to its world at a time where its characters are least likeable with absolutely no reason for us to care about them. We are told that Alex Levy (Anniston) and Mitch Kessler (Carell) have a strong onscreen presence and great chemistry. We never see it though, so while we’re told that the loss of this partnership will be difficult for Alex & subsequently witness her struggling with the news emotionally, we have no investment in it. It’s taken for granted and we have to just go along for the ride.
Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) gets thrust into this storyline at the same time. She is similarly introduced as a sneering, condescending reporter who gets into a confrontation at a protest and subsequently goes viral. Setting aside the quite laughable idea that a small-town reporter screaming at an obnoxious protester would suddenly rise to the level of national news even if the video of the incident went viral (the incident really doesn’t have the shock value and resonance its portrayed as having), this contrivance leads to a conundrum. Neither of the characters in the central conflict are particularly likeable. Alex is more upset about how Mitch’s philandering will impact her career than about the allegations themselves. Bradley is simply arrogant and condescending, with the air of faux-folksiness that comes from being a self-identified big fish in a small pond.
It’s all such a slog. The show’s opening hour really doesn’t seem particularly inviting. You could argue that it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the here and now, with much to be concerns about in the world. But when the here and now is so miserable, why replicate that in television? Especially with a format like this? It would have been possible to confront some of these issues without wallowing in them. The show is so desperate to paint in shades of grey that it even arguably undermines them more than if they’d been downplayed in a more escapist show – the #MeToo plot in particular seems in danger of being weakened by the fact Mitch is portrayed no more negatively than Alex or Bradley. This is less “everyone is flawed at least a bit” and more “everyone sucks all the time, get over it”.
The show isn’t completely without merit. Everyone turns in great performances, the cinematography is fantastic and there is good writing here (even if there is some torturously crack-handed exposition and someone’s which land really poorly in their efforts to elevate the importance of these characters and their exploits). But I fear all of this will be wasted if the tone doesn’t brighten a few shades every now and then & the story doesn’t provide some more hooks for the audience to connect with very soon.
If it seems like I’m being a bit hard on this first episode, it’s only because I had very high hopes for this show. The premise is right up my alley and the casting choices are top notch. I’ve been looking forward to seeing what they would do with this premise and this talent ever since I first heard about it. I was not expecting them to do this with it. And so far, I really wish they hadn’t.
Two Stars out of Five. Must try harder.