The Mourning Show Is Back

There was once a time not too long ago when there was genuine excitement and anticipation that was in the air.  Waaaay back in November 2019, we were on the cusp of dramatic expansion of brand new, exciting streaming platforms to challenge the dominance of Netflix, none quite as intriguing as the launch of Apple TV+.  Not only was I a loyal and dedicated I Phone user who was gonna get several months of the new service for free, but at the time I was still an executive at one of the studios supplying them with original content.   What’s more, a whole bunch of recent and longtime colleagues were running their efforts, so I even had inside information about what was really going on.

But while my company was supplying a big-budget, high-gloss, critically acclaimed sci-fi effort from the mind of the creator of BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA Ron Moore called FOR ALL MANKIND, the data we had insight to said virtually nobody was watching, at least on a television.  What Apple executives claimed was that far and away their most viewed program was THE MORNING SHOW, a frothy, celebrity-driven and far lighter drama that was indeed expensive thanks to the dream team casting (and executive producer efforts) of Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, not to mention Steve Carell, but a much more digestible show set against the backdrop of a TODAY SHOW-like world, complete with thinly veiled references to the misoygyny of Matt Lauer and the ambitions of Katie Couric and Savannah Guthrie, among others.   And since a whole lot of Netflix consumption was apparently happening on Apple devices, all the more reason for us to believe that fans of Aniston’s Rachel Green from FRIENDS were gravitating towards her newest starring role.

Following Netflix’s lead, Apple dumped entire seasons of their new lineup of eclectic originals all at once into the ecosystem, and being a loyal company man, I chose to invest the spare time I had into watching FOR ALL MANKIND and some of the other dramas out there in the streaming-verse.  THE MORNING SHOW, we figured, would be caught up on when time allowed, say, around the Christmas holidays.  I watched Season 1 in a comfortable large bed, with someone I actually got along with at that moment, and looked forward to some more viewing in a similar setting.

Well, anyone who knows me knows what happened after that to me and, subsequently, the world.  I don’t need to regurgitate the sordid details of my near-death experiences and, these days, even supplying a few extra details could result in undesired consequences for me.

By the time I  actually did get around to watching Season 1 I was in a different setting. alone, navigating a Smart TV for the first time.  In the middle of that attempt to watch a full season, a few more uncomfortable disruptions occurred.  But soon after my world finally came back to normal I thought I had some new reasons to reinvest myself in watching THE MORNING SHOW.  Apple had an opening for an executive that I was personally invited by the department head to interview more.  I thought this was a layup, considering the history and what I thought were extremely positive feelings from the top of the company down.  My zoom interviews went, I thought, fantastically.  But in an overly democratic setting where my fate was ultimately determined by the rank and file who would eventually report to me, I apparently didn’t go over quite as well.  I was quietly and without much explanation passed upon. And, eventually, the team at Apple stopped returning my phone calls and e-mails entirely.

So you’ll need to forgive me a bit for not wanting to catch up with this show until Season 3 dropped this week.  It doesn’t bring back the best memories for me.  And, apparently, this season’s storylines are dredging up a lot of events of the past couple of years that have disrupted way more lives than mine, including those of the shows’ protagonists.   The season opener has Aniston’s Alex Levy, now anchoring an “unfiltered” interview show on her network’s struggling “+” platform, being flustered when she is confronted with the question of how we as a society are having trouble getting back to normal after being in lockdown.  As viewers to Season 2 know, Alex had more than her share of issues with COVID and quarantine, and lost quite a bit of her soul and her appeal in the process.  As THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Daniel Fienberg recounted, it was no easier for many reviewers to get through it than it was for the cast:

 I had to stop watching the second season of The Morning Show after eight episodes — don’t worry, I eventually caught up — because the COVID-laced Italian rehabilitation of Mitch Kessler, and then his subsequent martyring, was too misguided for words. I watched all 10 episodes of the third season and never felt like an extended hiatus was required. Other than one episode — the flashback-laden fifth hour — and one key storyline that sprang from it, my show-directed anger was finite.

After seeing the clips of some of this during the extended recap that preceded the opener, I felt like I was more than caught up myself.  Because, honestly, I don’t really want to revisit those times whatsover.  Unfortunately, since this season opens up in March, 2022, fresh from an Omicron winter that reinforced the kind of panic and fear that streaming executives wish was still a way of life, a lot of the framing for this season’s plotlines come from that perspective of uncertainty and angst.

And in my own experience, my reconnecting with Aniston and Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson was as uneven as many of those that other reviewers have expressed, such as the semi-endorsement offered up by USA TODAY’s Patrick Ryan:

In its crackpot new season, “The Morning Show” doesn’t just jump the shark. It literally hurls itself into space.

When we pick up with Season 3 of the Apple TV+ drama (★★; streaming Wednesday, then weekly), veteran newscaster Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is preparing to shoot a segment aboard a tourist spacecraft as its tech billionaire owner (Jon Hamm) negotiates to buy the network. But after a spat with her double-dealing boss (Billy Crudup), Alex blows off the broadcast at the last minute, forcing another familiar face to launch into orbit without anyprior training or preparation.

No longer content to merely defy logic, “The Morning Show” fully incinerates it this year. During a building-wide power outage caused by a potential gunman, evening news anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) opts not to go into lockdown with her colleagues. Instead, she hops into an elevator, which predictably breaks down and traps her inside. Later in the season, Alex is shocked when her reporting is overshadowed by her high-profile office romance – a relationship that violates all sorts of journalism ethics, apparently a foreign concept to anyone at the fictional UBA network.

I freely admit I find Aniston and Witherspoon physically appealing, and depending upon which scene and setting we find their characters in one can’t ignore their charms.  When confronted by Jon Hamm’ Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos-like character, Aniston’s toned arms and strong physique exude the same kind of raw chemistry and animal magnetism they used to overwhelm Ross Geller with; indeed, their pas-de-deux is reminiscent of old school Hollywood movie romances with the likes of Hepburn and Tracy or Stanwyck and whomever.  And Witherspoon’s Jackson is softly lit with undeniable appeal for anyone, and given the titlllating storylines she has been given, let’s just say every thought anyone has ever had about how Tracy Flick or Elle Woods would grow up are given the chance to flourish.   It’s hard to take your eyes off either of them.
Fortunately, as these reviewers and yours truly have noticed, there’s more than enough compelling performances from the balance of the cast to give one a desire to come back, all the more necessary since this season’s release pattern now mirrors the more strategic and less overwhelming pattern of spreading out over time so as to maximize zeitgeist opportunity.  Holland Taylor is absolutely wonderful as a cross between Shari Redstone and Jane Fonda’s similar chairwoman character in THE NEWSROOM.   Hamm is as disarming as ever, his George Clooney-like appeal and his trolling of both the best and worst qualities of a bachelor billionaire as enjoyable as any role he’s had since his Don Draper days.  There’s also some other excellent performances by key co-stars and new blood females as Ryan observed:

Flummoxing choices combined with ham-fisted dialogue make for a sort of Lynchian fever dream that is strangely addictive the more you watch. Like a car crash, or Max’s similarly batty “Sex and the City” sequel, you simply can’t look away.

When “The Morning Show” does succeed, it’s because of its performances. Greta Lee (“Past Lives”) and Karen Pittman (“And Just Like That …”) are captivating standouts as Stella Bak and Mia Jordan: two women of color navigating a minefield of power dynamics at the network.

But as Fienberg reminds, there is also the returning presence of lightning rod  Crudup as UBA’s CEO:

Fortunately, Crudup remains the piece of the show that I find to be most consistently compelling, even if the writers are wildly inconsistent in remembering if he’s supposed to be a hero or a villain. When Cory is treated as an eccentric sociopath, Crudup borders on brilliant as a man whose excessively enabled sense of confidence is being tested perhaps for the first time; like the borderline business Terminator he is, he begins to glitch. Crudup’s scenes with the great Lindsay Duncan, in a one-episode cameo as Cory’s mother, are my favorite of the season, a theater-trained duo sparring magically.

So all in all, there’s enough reason to come back.  Enough time has passed for me that some of the bitterness and bad memories that this show dredges up are at least tolerable, and there’s enough spacing to navigate the apparently well-received future episodes, intriguingly being released in timing with the Wonderlust week that launched Apple’s newest IPhone and AppleWatch iterations.  Because, honestly, at this point, we know more than enough about what metrics and data really matter to Apple’s real bosses and, no, I don’t mean my one-time colleagues and very missed friends.

And, for the record, I’m watching this season play out on a much bigger screen Smart TV than the one I watched previous seasons on because, honestly, Witherspoon’s smile needs to be seen in far greater glory than my soon-to-be outdated 11 Max Pro can provide.

Some things are simply too nice to be avoided.  How do you like THEM apples?

Until next time…

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