Say what you want about that crazy megalomaniac Steve Jobs, but he always knew how to throw a good launch party. So, it’s easy to imagine him turning in his grave after the underwhelming November 1 launch of Apple TV+ — although, in fairness, I suspect he hasn’t stopped revolving since Ashton Kutcher played him in “Jobs” back in 2013.
Apple TV+ — and it probably wasn’t long before naysayers started calling it Apple TV- — is, of course, the tech giant’s eagerly anticipated move into original programming (of the non-computing variety, that is). Apple has opened up its vast checkbook and, in a scene reminiscent of the brilliant opening in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Tout va Bien,” written out check after check to secure some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry: Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan, J.J. Abrams … even Big Bird wasn’t immune to Tim Cook’s tax-dodging bucks.
Three other high-profile names to add to that list are Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. They all star in “The Morning Show,” which is reportedly the most expensive TV series ever made. It’s certainly the big-ticket item Apple hopes will draw in the masses for what I’d call a “channel” but it is describing as a “video-on-demand web television service.”
I’m pretty sure Jobs wouldn’t have been a big fan of that description either, but there’s one thing he would have loved about “The Morning Show”: its shameless Apple product placement. Never in the history of popular entertainment has one show witnessed so many iPhones — after the first episode alone, I had seen so many that I was starting to feel like an exploited Chinese factory worker. Truly, they are everywhere: Characters check out push notifications on them; they are angrily slammed into drawers; they are even held “just so” in order for us to see visual jokes on them (like when Witherspoon’s iPhone IDs her mother as “That Woman” on an incoming call).
As the intuitive among you will have guessed, “The Morning Show” is set in the world of morning television — that caffeine-fueled, brightly colored land where the battle between hard news and entertainment has been waged daily since the 1950s, when the first anchor of NBC’s “Today” show shared co-hosting duties with a chimpanzee called J. Fred Muggs. And he wouldn’t be the last animal to work there (allegedly).
Full disclosure: I have never watched a single minute of morning television in my life. I’m sure millions of others haven’t either, but it’s a vital part of the TV industry, raking in hundreds of millions of ad dollars each year for otherwise cash-strapped news divisions.
This alternately ebullient and earnest world is one still overwhelmingly created and controlled by men, yet predominantly viewed by women (which always strikes me as wrong — like discovering the head of development at a sanitary pads firm is a teenage boy).
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That cutthroat world of “breakfast TV” was expertly captured in Brian Stelter’s 2013 book “Top of the Morning,” which chronicled the end of the hottest winning streak in U.S. television history when “Today” was replaced by “Good Morning America” as the most watched morning show.
And if “The Morning Show” had been made before the fall of 2017, it undoubtedly would have just been about egotistical anchors, vicious ratings wars and corporate clowns trying to milk TV’s oldest cash cow for its very last drop.
As Stelter wrote, “When you’re dealing with a lot of rich folks [the onscreen talent] whose alarm clocks go off at 3:30 in the morning, day after day, some crazy shit is going to go down.”
Cliffhangers and #Me Too
But then, in November 2017, some even crazier shit went down: “Today” mainstay Matt Lauer was fired by NBC for “inappropriate sexual behavior” (an allegation he has repeatedly denied), and the #MeToo storm hit the entertainment industry.
That’s why, after iPhones, the most recurring item in “The Morning Show” is references to disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein — which, of course, also makes the lack of specific references to Lauer even more striking. Instead, we get a Lauer-alike in Carell’s character, Mitch Kessler, who is accused at the series’ outset of “multiple complaints of sexual misconduct” and unceremoniously booted from the show he’s hosted for the past 15 years. (In case we don’t get that this is meant to be Lauer, there’s the exact same creepy desk mechanism in Kessler’s dressing room that automatically closes and locks his door when pressed.)
It’s fair to say that “The Morning Show” has received a mixed critical response — definitely more iPod Shuffle than iPhone 6. Yet I have to admit that, four out of 10 episodes in, I’m thoroughly enjoying it (a second season has already been commissioned). It’s not groundbreaking, by any stretch, but I’m hooked with its “tune in next week” cliff-hangers and desire to address the #MeToo polemic. (There’s actually a very funny #MeToo gag in episode two, if you can imagine such a thing.)
Yes, it’s unashamedly soapy, completely implausible, not always subtle — scratch that, is rarely subtle — and is patchier than Wi-Fi coverage in Antarctica. But here’s the thing: There’s a fascinating “facts versus fluff” dynamic playing out here that mirrors the fictional show it is portraying. There are grandstanding speeches about being a woman in a man’s world; grousing about the difficulties of being an “old school” guy in a grave new world; and tub-thumping rhetoric about the need for serious journalism in a seriously messed-up age.
Best of all, whether by accident or design, all three of the protagonists have an ambiguity that makes them difficult to read, all three equally confused by the world around them: Is Jennifer Aniston’s TV host Machiavelli in Louboutins, or a total pro being forced to look over her shoulder because dumb men in suits have slapped a “Best by” date on her?
Is Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson a conservative or a liberal rebel? Is she a breath of fresh air who thinks teleprompters are for wimps, or the dumbest person ever to pick up a microphone — prone to lines like “Remember the truth? Journalism? We’re news people!” Then there’s Carell’s Mitch. Is he a sexual predator living in denial and the Hamptons’ finest mansion, or “merely” a man who used his position of power to engage in sexual relations with vulnerable female underlings?
“The Morning Show” presents us with all of these options and more, offering a heady mix of an old staple like “All About Eve” (the action relocated from a stage to a TV studio) and an unabashedly liberal show like “The Good Wife/Fight,” always only one scene away from addressing some topical controversy.
For me, there’s something irresistible about any half-decent drama set in the “ticking-clock” world of broadcasting. “The Morning Show” may not have the smarts of “Broadcast News,” the rage of “Network,” the warmth of “The Hour” or the charm of “Morning Glory” (that vastly underrated 2010 Rachel McAdams comedy set in the same milieu). But it has three always-engaging actors wrestling with their demons and the built-in dramas of the “live television” environment.
Would I have preferred it if my plan had received bipartisan support and it was now legally binding that any show depicting the media must be scripted by Aaron Sorkin? (“Mitch just said ‘Walk with me,’ right?”) For sure — there’s no way the “Sports Night” scribe would have written a line like “Chaos is the new cocaine!” But “The Morning Show” is just savvy and smart enough to pull it all off.
Apple spent years under Steve Jobs telling us to “think different.” But it deserves credit here for thinking inside the box.