(aka The Morning Show) (Various Directors Apple TV+, 2019)
As Bert Newton once said, “Morning TV? Surely Death is next.” The Varnished Culture staff are owls, not sparrows, so we’ll take word of mouth that morning news shows offer relentless cheer, soft items, group-think and bonhomie – but deep nastiness off screen. “Morning Wars” starts and ends as conventional soap opera, but of certain high standard. The proven anchor team – Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) and Alex Levy (Jennifer Anniston) is rent asunder when Kessler – playing every philanderer confused by the #MeToo paradigm, or perhaps just Matt Lauer – is told to hit the bricks for his octopodal sexual shenanigans, and Levy, in a fit of pique disguised as a power play, plucks plucky Bradley Jackson (Reece Witherspoon) – a hack redneck from the sticks who ‘tells it like it is’ and leads with her determined and capacious chin – to be her co-host in the ratings juggernaut that daily awakens the Big Apple.
But Kessler is not going quietly, and the show develops into a kind of glib thriller as to who knew of his harassing and who else will take the fall. Naturally, Mitch’s journey is also becoming self-revelatory; He’s gaining insight, slowly and unevenly, evidenced by his tête-à-tête with old buddy Dick Lundy (a creepily good Martin Short). Mitch fulminates: “This whole #MeToo thing is so fucking puritanical and myopic, and no one is addressing it! A woman can say one thing about you — doesn’t matter what her motivation is — and everything you’ve done in your life, gone. Your career, erased.” But as the two men drink and chat, it seems clear that Lundy is unrepentant. “You are actually a predator, and people are going to want you to own that.” “As opposed to — what are you exactly, Mitch?” Well, at this point at least, we and Mitch don’t know.
The whole melange is very watchable, like a train wreck or slow-moving floodwaters, but at times it seems like refugees from “The Newsroom” sat amid too many pots of coffee and wrote too many scenarios that they later focus-tested. The sub-plots are endless, the ‘Burning Issues’ too numerous (and casually turfed as soon as one inevitably comes into conflict with another). The production is superb and the acting generally very good. Anniston seems to have always been a good actress working with abysmal material. Here she shines as paranoid, damaged, devious, and guilt-ridden, an intelligence stultified by years of early-morning inanity. She huffs and puffs a tad excessively though. Witherspoon is parachuted-in as a sort of cross between Eliza Dolittle and Vicky Lester, and that renders her character not so much unbelievable as chaotically unformed. Billy Crudup is good as the Svengali-like director of news and really, from victims to villains to in-betweens, the whole cast play very well.
But the fundamental flaw in the piece is that it is in a civil war with itself.(‘Sic semper tyrannis‘ says fired Director Chip Black for emphasis.) Morning Wars can’t seem to settle on what it is about, or whose side it’s on (which could reflect a balanced approach, but that doesn’t ring true either). The females are almost all vaguely hysterical (”Help me: I’m bi-polar, it’s awesome!”). All the black characters seem token. The reportage seems to ignore the golden rule that opinions are free but facts are sacred. And the anger of white people paid millions of dollars a year to read cue-cards, whether they come from the Upper East side or out of the crackerbarrel, is not the stuff of which truly great drama is made.