The second season of The Morning Show, originally created by Jay Carson and directed by a host of names including Kerry Ehrin and Mimi Leder for Apple TV, runs on duplicity, unease, uncertainty and personal wreckage.
The first season of the show, inspired by the book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter, which streamed in 2019, was an astutely comedic dramatisation of a #MeToo scandal that rocks on American a.m. TV—it was all-too-familiar grist in 2019, when powerful male journalists were finally outed for sexual misconduct in the newsrooms. And Season 1 worked exceedingly well in not only recreating the nuts and bolts of ratings wars, back-stabbing rivals and the role of glamour in new anchoring, but also establishing the lead of its star cast, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) as a feminist hero when she and her co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) take over the newsroom and expose on air that Alex’s long-time co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) had on many occasions been responsible for sexual misconduct against women in the Morning Show (MS) team. One of those women, Hannah Shoenfield (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) had committed suicide, and the tragedy fuelled a thrilling, morally frenetic season finale.
In Season 2, which ended last Friday, Alex comes undone. Her anointed “feminist” status, we learn, is no deliverance. From coming to terms with her closeness to Mitch, taking refuge in solitude in country home, deciding to return to the eponymous show that made her what she is, then facing her moral compass and embracing and owning her personal mess, to contracting Covid-19 and doing a streaming monologue about mortality and impermanence like a pop-philosopher, Alex morphs. And so do most other main characters in the show including Bradley, whose ambivalent professional chemistry with Alex and a romantic relationship with another of the network’s seasoned anchors Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulis), unspools her traumatic growing-up years. Her bipolar, drug-addled brother shows up at work and embarrasses her. Meanwhile, the network struggles to stay float, with the pandemic looming large.
In the role of Cory Ellison, the head honcho, a wry hustler committed to saving the show and the network, Bill Crudup rises a few notches above what he did in Season 1—his comic timing is sharp, and silences are as potent as his verbose duels with journalists and suits alike. Cory wants to do the right thing and is constantly trying to balance protecting newsroom ethics with saving the network from crumbling. Cory is the perfect antidote to the two women who have the spotlight—their battles turn inward while Cory has no choice but to brave the outside storm. By the end of Season 2, foregrounded eerily by the pandemic, Cory is trying to bulldoze investors to save the house by launching a streaming service.
Both seasons have many, many characters, and the writers aren’t clear about why some of them are even there. #MeToo, workplace diversity, work-life balance, women leaders—they tug at all strains of the 2020-21 newsroom zeitgeist. And for a show with such a brilliant ensemble cast (besides Aniston, Witherspoon, Carell, Crudup and Margulis, the other actors who leave imprints in small but crucial roles of characters on thin ice are Mark Duplass, Karen Pittman, Desean Terry and Greta Lee), the storytelling in Season 2 lacks a consistent tone or voice—and like the first season, but more than it, Season 2 is an amalgamation of some very moving episodes and tracks, but without a clear sense of what to do with them.
The idea that emerges very clearly and compellingly, distilling it in a monologue that the Covid-positive Alex coughs up at the end from her living room, is this: Own your mess. Alex’s realisation that she may have owned the feminist tag without much introspection and avoided the shadows of past missteps becomes the overall theme of the season, with all the other characters inexorably drawn to the same space of personal truth and expansion. “If you want to cut somebody off, cut them off and be done with it,” says Alex, who has been wrestling with her own relationship with Mitch. “If that is not an option, then you’ve gotta own them. Don’t let your shame of what other people think run your life.” In the same scene: “The reason families are screwed up (she uses a saltier word) is because they are full of people.” The only foil to all this inner unravelling is Laura, who believes trauma is to be left behind, disowned and cut out. And Margulis holds her role with aplomb.Both Aniston and Witherspoon are terrific in carrying forward the arcs of their characters from the first season. For Aniston, this series was almost like a resurrection of her star persona, and she progressively sheds the face tint and the perfectly-done hair for her character’s pathos-filled denouement. The stars end human, not heroic. We all know human is heroic enough when the Virus arrives.