To make great dramas about the present moment, you must be either quick or prescient. Life moves so fast that one moment the news is talking about Covid-19, the next it’s investigating the Capitol insurrection. And then, before you know it, they’re on the frontlines of Russia’s war with Ukraine. To quote Ferris Bueller, if you stop and look around, you might miss it. And so, for writers wanting to skewer the present moment, to tap into social concerns or current affairs, the choice is stark: quick or prescient. Unfortunately for Apple TV+’s lavish headline act, The Morning Show, it has never been either.
Life goes on, that’s the mantra of news journalists and The Morning Show. After workplace pest Mitch (Steve Carrell) met his maker in an Italian roadside ditch, a chapter of the show was closed. But sure enough, life keeps up the sprint. Alex (Jennifer Aniston) is on top of the world, following her Emmy-winning pandemic show, and Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) is comfortably ensconced at the evening news. All the same, that tranquillity is not unperturbable. Both women want “too much”; meanwhile, Cory (Billy Crudup) is trying to seduce an ambitious, rogue billionaire into purchasing UBA, the network that airs the The Morning Show.
That billionaire, Paul Marks, is played by Jon Hamm. Imagine Elon Musk, if Elon Musk looked like Jon Hamm. He’s the sort of guy who spreads out in saunas and talks about “solo climbing on Annapurna”, before launching a shuttle into space. The smell of contemporary political discourse – the musk, even – hangs heavily over the character, a NASA contractor interested in an ambitious vanity acquisition. But at its heart, The Morning Show is still about journalistic rivalries. Plot points range from the absurd – a trip into zero-gravity, for example, or an on-air ransomware attack – to the convenient. An older executive using racist language disrupts a coruscating live broadcast from her own network (a narrative trick that is quickly becoming The Morning Show’s leitmotif).
TV shows about the media are tricky and prone to navel-gazing. Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, for instance, was hamstrung by its belief that it was depicting something really, genuinely important. The Morning Show, in spite of a heavy premise dealing with the #MeToo movement and drawn from the real-life experiences of sexual harassment victims, had a lighter, more soap operatic touch. It is the sort of show where people say things like “we are officially in the Thunderdome” or “don’t toy with me, I’m not a fidget spinner”. In short, it is quite daft.
The death of Mitch during series two has freed it from the tonal constraints of a #MeToo inspired plot. With its talk of mergers and hostile takeovers, boardroom battles and shareholder rebellions, it is patently inspired by Succession’s critical and ratings triumph. Serious issues recur, of course, and the show falls back on its original concept when the stakes of the drama are raised (“did he…” whispers Mia (Karen Pittman) earnestly, when Bradley looks upset, “do something to you?”). But primarily this third instalment is an unsubtle melodrama about tech billionaires and the strange, unhealthy influence they exert over the media.
But the show has always been overwrought, and the pleasure has been watching fine television personalities like Aniston, Witherspoon and Carrell going toe-to-toe, fighting each other for another mouthful of scenery to chew. The addition of Hamm, alongside newcomers like Stephen Fry and Tig Notaro, adds star power but little refinement. Increasingly, the show feels like it is moving away from a serious, if silly, drama and becoming a satire, and not a very effective one at that. The writers, including show creator Jay Carson and developer Kerry Ehrin, want to bring an acid quill to big tech oligopoly, but the result is something that feels weaker. In the same way that The Wire or Breaking Bad have been followed by endless, pale facsimiles, the meek Successionification of TV is truly underway.
Fans of the show will, by now, be immune to critical negativity. And since a slow start the show has picked up momentum, and a loyal audience, resulting in the commission of a fourth series before this third instalment has even aired. “People don’t know what they want,” comes Cody’s judgment of the cable news agenda, “until we puree it, spoon it up and make airplane sounds.” Well, open wide, because here comes another dollop of largely flavourless, textureless televisual mush.
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