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'The Morning Show' is back, with a new billionaire

Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) remains a real pill, not that <em>The Morning Show </em>has noticed.
Apple TV+
Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) remains a real pill, not that The Morning Show has noticed.

The Morning Show is a story about two awful people who think they are noble people. Bad journalists who think they are good journalists. Selfish people who think they are caring people. And, like the dead people in The Sixth Sense, their misunderstanding of their own existence is a problem for those who see them clearly.

The third season opens with the words "March 10, 2022," in keeping with the show's history of unleashing its takes on the news of about a year and a half ago. The opening sequence finds the first of these two awful people, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), reviewing a draft of her own video obituary, which has been prepared in the event she dies during a planned rocket flight with billionaire Paul Marks (you may think of him as Jeffmark Muskerzos), played by Jon Hamm.

Look at this happy, successful news anchor. Unfortunately, Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) is, you guessed it, full of secrets.
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Apple TV+
Look at this happy, successful news anchor. Unfortunately, Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) is, you guessed it, full of secrets.

Alex is thriving. Her hair is better than ever. She's parlayed her literally and figuratively sweaty "Oh no, I have COVID!" special into a successful streaming interview show, and she's co-hosting The Morning Show (the fictional one, not the Apple one) part-time with Yanko (Néstor Carbonell) and Christina Hunter (new cast member Nicole Beharie), a charismatic ex-Olympic athlete. Alex's next assignment is to blast off into space, briefly, with Paul Marks. Is this opportunity a metaphor? Regrettably, yes.

Meanwhile, Alex's former on-air partner, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), the second of our two distasteful lead characters, is hosting the evening news. What precisely has happened to Bradley since we left these characters roughly a year earlier unfolds in a series of convoluted flashbacks, but suffice it to say she has continued to be, just like Alex, disappointing as both a journalist and a person. And a citizen. And a family member! There's a lot going on.

Billy Crudup as Cory and Greta Lee as Stella. If you want to see <em>The Morning Show </em>at its best, these oddballs are where it's at.
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Apple TV+
Billy Crudup as Cory and Greta Lee as Stella. If you want to see The Morning Show at its best, these oddballs are where it's at.

The good stuff is still good

The Morning Show is not bad; it is wildly uneven. The strengths of this season line up with some of the strengths of the other seasons. The most interesting people in this universe continue to be (remember, this is fiction) two network executives: Cory (Billy Crudup) and Stella (Greta Lee). To TMS's credit, they've given Lee, who has always killed it on this show, more meaty emotion to play this go-round, as it becomes clear she has a history with Marks. Cory remains emotionally bogged down in an implausible crush on Bradley. But still, Crudup's capacity for weird antics that betray Cory's genuine passion for his job makes his scenes transfixing. Mia (Karen Pittman) gets a new story, too, even if much of it isn't very well tied into the rest of the show. Pittman is asked to do a lot with a little, as has often been the case both on this show and in her career, and it's remarkable how often she manages to do it.

Moreover, the creators of The Morning Show (the Apple one, not the fictional one) know how to build a newsroom ride, for lack of a better word — an all-hands, what-the-heck, kinetic scramble of the type that does indeed take place in real newsrooms. There is a lot to admire in the execution of those sequences. Late in the season, Stella runs through the newsroom in a moment of chaos, and it is legitimately thrilling. And they continue to cast good actors: Nicole Beharie is a very solid addition. Tig Notaro pops up in a small-ish but interesting role as Marks' right hand. And, of course, Jon Hamm.

The driving story of the season, heavily reliant on Hamm's effective blend of charm and menace, is the possibility that Marks will buy UBA. A billionaire? Buying a media company? And everyone is nervous about the implications? The devil you say. So there's a lot here. At some moments in the third season, there is air under the wings of the show, and it seems to be getting off the ground in new ways.

The stars do not align

The problem is that inevitably, The Morning Show returns to its lead characters. They are played by its two biggest stars. And they are its biggest weakness, because of the clanging disconnect between the writing of the show and the production. These two women are written as villains, but they are filmed as heroes.

On the page, Alex and Bradley are sharply drawn satirical examples of solipsistic celebrity journalists. Alex exposed her co-workers to COVID, treats the people she works with abominably, takes her one loyal friend (played by Mark Duplass) for granted over and over again, and ignored her co-anchor's sexual harassment of others for years before hounding him to lie for her until she arguably convinced him to drive off an Italian cliff rather than continue the conversation. Her on-air COVID special concluded with a speech in which she proclaimed that she will do whatever she wants and people can like it or lump it. She gets worse this season.

Even on such a tricky show, it's a pleasure to see the very good Nicole Beharie.
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Apple TV+
Even on such a tricky show, it's a pleasure to see the very good Nicole Beharie.

Bradley, though less purely loathsome than Alex, took a job she was not qualified for and then often ignored the advice and the needs of the people who produce the show. She had an affair with someone she was covering as a reporter. She attacked another journalist for reporting accurately on Alex's affair with her co-anchor and her likely complicity in enabling his misdeeds, not for any substantive reason but, as she explained, because she and Alex are friends. And that's what friends do! She tromped through a packed emergency room burdened by the early COVID surge, ignoring all precautions and endangering everyone there because she needed to find her brother. Presumably, as one of Aniston's former co-stars once said in another setting, everyone else was not in the emergency room but merely in the predicament room. Bradley gets worse this season, too.

They are contemptible people, as written. Unethical, dishonest, reckless, self-obsessed, disrespectful of their peers and colleagues and friends, and possessed of an overinflated sense of their own importance. In a fairer world, this should be a Heathers-style satire of news people, dark and bitter as biting into a coffee bean.

But, oh, the way Aniston and Witherspoon are filmed. They, of course, have both done good work elsewhere and bring with them on-screen personas of cultivated appeal. They look amazing. They both have spellbinding, luxuriant hair. (Witherspoon was a brunette in the first season for kicks, but has reverted to Reese Classic Blonde.) They are beautifully dressed. They are lit like angels. More substantively, speeches that are written as egotistical rants are shot — lit, scored, edited, structured within episodes and seasons — like moments of truth. In the end, they are always the ones who arrive at the big hero moments, even if nothing in their behavior suggests they'd ever find the way there. The entire show is perhaps best understood as a demonstration of the powers of stardom, because if these characters were not played by beautiful and beloved actors who ooze what Hollywood terms likability for women, it would be obvious that they are ghouls.

Journalism 101

One engine for this disconnect is that the show's understanding of journalism — or at least the understanding of it that prevails — is deeply confused. What The Morning Show presents as the right thing to do for a journalist is rooted exclusively in individualism: What matters most is having a good heart, defined as trying to help the people you personally like. That's why Bradley's decision to attack anyone who dared to call out Alex's complicity in a long sexual harassment problem simply because the two of them are friends was played as if it were a hero moment, an opportunity to bond. I will not spoil it, but there is an instance in this season where Bradley again does something unethical — something a reporter at a high school paper would know is wrong — but it's played as the natural result of what a loving person she is.

The show sticks perhaps one toe at a time into dynamics the exploration of which, if not beyond its grasp, is beyond its will. Rather than acknowledging, for instance, that Alex and Bradley would be exhausting to work with, it presents them as spirited when they obstruct and create problems for their lower-paid colleagues. (Does Alex whine about the production of that obituary? Obviously, even though if it's ever needed, she'll be dead. Even a tribute to her, a gauzy hagiography nobody will likely ever see on-air and she definitely won't, does not motivate Alex to stop complaining.)

Jon Hamm continues his history of dreamboat-monster mashups while playing billionaire Paul Marks.
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Apple TV+
Jon Hamm continues his history of dreamboat-monster mashups while playing billionaire Paul Marks.

And now ... Don Draper

And so it is apt that into this world steps Jon Hamm, icon of the prestige-TV antihero wave. Hamm has mastered characters like Don Draper and, yes, Paul Marks. He can deploy both their polish and their tendency to do harm. On Mad Men, Don's handsomeness was a lever he pulled; his capacity to persuade presented a danger to his wife and children, to the women he slept with, to the people he worked with. The things about him that were wicked and broken, those things were embedded in the writing, but the production understood them, too. When Don gave the classic Carousel presentation to Kodak in the Mad Men first-season finale "The Wheel," his words were moving and affecting to the people in the room, but the music under the speech was melancholy. It was heavy, it made the scene feel unconvinced by his words even if others believed them, and Don then went home to an empty house, the result of his lousy treatment of his family. The elements worked together.

But when Alex Levy, at the end of a season full of insensitive and self-involved behavior, made a speech last season about how unfair everyone was being to her, the music twinkled, then swelled, then settled on a determined, upbeat piano as her producer (Mark Duplass, who incidentally gets one knock-you-out wonderful moment this season) smiled and nodded in cutaway shots. The elements did not work together.

A show can have lead characters who are not merely flawed but deeply unpleasant and untrustworthy. It can have heroes, or flawed heroes, or antiheroes, or no heroes. What doesn't work is disharmony — not complexity, but confusion — created by elements of the same show regarding the same characters. And understand: Witherspoon and Aniston's skills are not the issue; they are both fully capable of leaning into the nastiness of these women. But instead, for whatever reason, Alex and Bradley perch on shaky pedestals, buoyed by unearned cheers, like Don Draper going home from the Carousel presentation to find dinner on the table, his loving wife waiting, and a cheerful retro tune coming from the record player.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.