Those who read out the news have no business being the news. Yet it is now commonplace to see anchors making headlines. In India recently, one self-lionising newsman martyred himself for being questioned by the police, while another journalist who mistakenly believed she had been hired by a prestigious university was gleefully schooled on due process by the internet (yes, the internet, the place that prizes veracity and responsibility).
Perhaps the reason people go after newspeople so enthusiastically is because even when reading out prepared copy from a teleprompter, they are the ones talking about rights and wrongs—and may thus be perceived as professional virtue-signallers. The second season of The Morning Show, on Apple TV+ from 17 September, allows us to see how the other foot approaches the shoe. Over 10 episodes, it depicts newsfolk fatigued by their personal lives being put under scrutiny. “Who’s your tailor sleeping with?” outraged anchor Alex Levy, played by Jennifer Aniston, asks her TV audience. “Does it matter, if your pants fit?”
This—like most arguments made by The Morning Show—is a false equivalence. The tailor is not a public person. The tailor is not someone with a massive social media following or a book deal. The tailor is not known for their credibility. Most importantly, unlike the newsperson under fire, the tailor’s misdeeds are hypothetical. The Morning Show is, therefore, no place for answers, but one where flawed characters get their hands dirty dealing with messy questions.
One question is that of diversity. An executive of colour shuns the idea of Aniston’s Alex and Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson hosting a show together. To her the idea of two straight white women may be a “bad look” now, but in the first season, merely having two women anchors instead of a man and a woman—an on-screen husband-wife construct—was hailed as revolutionary. The decision-making is more about optics than talent, demonstrated tragically by comedian Hasan Minhaj, who, playing a token newsman of colour, can’t act to save his life.
Aniston flexes her acting muscles hard, admirably tackling a truly messed up character, perhaps one of the most unlikeable women on TV. Her inherently selfish Alex Levy has amassed power at the cost of those around her, including high-profile women she befriended and discarded. As Aniston reckons with numerous flaws, it’s impressive how the show never pivots to make her character “good”: She’s always wrong, not wronged. Alex also develops back trouble, allowing Aniston to lean on her considerable physical comedy talents.
Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley, on the other hand, is much less compelling this season. Her gee-shucks backwoods backstory is plain dull, and while Witherspoon is gifted enough to make us care about her character’s desperate need for validation, she slows the season down. Billy Crudup, a network executive thriving on chaos in the first season, is now both more senior and, disappointingly, more rational. A character likens him to Woody Woodpecker but that mischief-maker has been replaced not only by an Alex-Bradley fan but, by the last episode, someone all too mushy. (That’s all, folks.)
The performance of the season comes from Julianna Margulies, playing prime-time news icon Laura Peterson, clearly overqualified for breakfast-show shenanigans. The actor best known for The Good Wife (Amazon Prime) brings white-hot clarity to The Morning Show. By refusing to wear Groucho Marx glasses on TV, she makes it evident what this show’s protagonists have been lacking the most: professionalism. While others squawk about personal woes, she refuses to let it get in the way of her job.
Steve Carrell, as the cancelled predator who once hosted The Morning Show, is shown as a lonely man living in a spectacular Italian idyll, overlooking azure waters as he sighs at his lot. The first season featured a remarkable conversation where Martin Short, playing a cancelled film director ranting against the world, makes Carrell aware of how monstrous he himself has (and could) become, and how slippery the slope of denial can be. This melodramatic, superficial season holds no such brilliance.
The coronavirus shapes the season’s narrative. As reports of the outbreak begin, newsrooms are dismissive. The first-time anchors hear the term “social distancing”, they laugh on air. This feels immediately familiar as well as invariably stale. We see obvious covid-19 cues but we don’t get to see unforeseen issues with, say, production or news-gathering. Nothing new.
What The Morning Show seems to be saying is that the only way forward for those who have been cancelled is sympathy—no matter how it is earned. A character who appears to deserve flaming pitchforks comes down with COVID, spinning the illness into yet another new lease of career. This is believable yet insensitive, much like news anchors on this show who alarmingly forsake masks while running around homeless shelters in New York. The Morning Show is all too eager to rip masks off, even if it may injure more than it reveals.
The biggest problem is self-awareness. A morning show is filler, something no news network takes seriously, a place for breakfast-y fun rather than hard news. News doesn’t break at daybreak any more. “Everyone’s carrying around the news,” an exasperated character says. “We are just the news for people who have too much time.” That doesn’t stop others from self-importantly treating their show like the world depends on it. May they eventually wake up. Good morning, and good luck.
Streaming tip of the week:
For those interested in more realistic depictions of newsrooms, I would strongly recommend movies like Spotlight (SonyLiv), The Post (SonyLiv), Nightcrawler (Netflix), Good Night And Good Luck (MUBI), and the 1976 masterpiece All The President’s Men (iTunes/Google Play).
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.