What to Watch Verdict
The second season of 'The Morning Show' promises to be as frustrating and strangely compelling as before, if the premiere is any indication.
Billy Crudup's go-for-broke performance remains the show's high point
The wheeling and dealing is well paced as usual
A killer cast is hard to ignore
The show's intent to incorporate real-world events is a stumble
The promise of making the pandemic a story feels like a threat
The setup of bringing Jennifer Aniston back to NYC takes too long to get going
It’s been nearly two years since The Morning Show first arrived as one of the marquee shows on the brand-new streaming service Apple TV+. The show’s first season brought with it some major actors, a cable-news inspiration, and an aggressive attempt to harness the same vibes that Aaron Sorkin brought to The Newsroom and Sports Night in talking about morning-news talk shows and the cutthroat internecine politics that fueled such programs. That’s what The Morning Show strived to be, but what The Morning Show actually is, or wound up being thanks to an overly lengthy production and showrunner problems, is the equivalent of a trashy summertime novel. The Morning Show was almost gloriously overheated, and in such a way that it’s genuinely difficult to discern if the people making this show understand how ridiculous it can be or if it wound up that way as a happy accident.
If the second-season premiere, “My Least Favorite Year”, is any indication, then The Morning Show -- like it or not -- is still incredibly silly, ponderous and overzealous and overstuffed and ridiculous, all while maintaining an ability to compel the audience. For those who may have forgotten, or simply are joining in season two, The Morning Show’s first season was focused on conflicts represented by a scandal in which seasoned anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) was fired for sexual harassment allegations levied at him by many women at the fictional network UBA. Mitch was one of two anchors of The Morning Show, whose co-anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is now joined by brash up-and-comer Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). As the season progressed, Alex and Bradley serve as frenemies who eventually join forces in the final moments to reveal that the head of UBA (Tom Irwin) knew about Mitch’s scandals and tried to silence one of his accusers (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has a fatal overdose spurred by speaking out. It’s not just that they speak the truth about this scandal, though: they do it on live television.
“My Least Favorite Year”, if only briefly, picks up mere minutes after this on-air revelation, as Alex and Bradley try to figure out their next moves before Alex’s team (including the always delightful James Urbaniak, on screen far too briefly here) whisks her away but with Alex promising to stay in Bradley’s corner. UBA news executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) believes that he’s gotten one over on the head of the network, only to be shocked to learn that he’s being fired for his colluding with Alex and Bradley to ensure their truth-telling made it on the air. Cory, always the loquacious and manically chipper one, insults the board of directors (headed up by Holland Taylor) and bemoans them not letting him bring UBA into the 21st century. After the opening titles roll, we then get a grim reminder of something The Morning Show tried to do outside of its commentary on the #MeToo movement and the takedown of figures like Matt Lauer: weave in real news stories to its fictional world.
And what major news story might be worth discussing on The Morning Show’s second season? What major global event occurred in between the first and second seasons? Well, the montage set to the song “Return to Me” might give you a clue: it’s a minute-long series of drone shots of New York City, looking all but abandoned, followed by a superimposed caption “Three months earlier” and the rest of the episode taking place on December 30 and 31, 2019. Yes, it’s perhaps no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to take center stage at some point in this season, though the various nudges throughout about its presence are particularly exhausting, as when show producer Mia (Karen Pittman) nixes covering a story about a respiratory disease felling people in China, or when Cory exults that 2020 is going to be a “hell of a year” as someone sneezes in the background. Get it? Do you--do you get it? This is exactly the strange, acidically sweet spot of The Morning Show, a show as stupid as it manages to be entertaining.
The timeline is particularly weird, considering the pre-title sequence. The long and short of it, as becomes eventually clear, is thus: by the end of 2019, Bradley continues to co-anchor The Morning Show, but no longer with Alex, who has holed up in a snowy cottage in Maine. Cory, meanwhile, has returned to UBA as the head of the network, and he has a new problem to resolve. Another UBA news anchor, Ray Marcus, is being accused of creating a harassing and toxic workplace. There’s no choice but to fire Ray, but who will take over his place on the evening newscast? Bradley wants the job for herself, but she’s the last to know that the job’s already spoken for, by her current Morning Show co-anchor Eric (Hasan Minhaj). UBA’s execs already have a couple of options for a new morning anchor, but Cory gets himself a wild idea: bring Alex back to the desk.
As with many of Cory’s notions from the first season, it seems to have few takers, among the execs or even Alex herself. Cory heads out to Maine to visit Alex, seen chopping wood after a frustrating call with her agent, who encourages her to dig deeper about Mitch in the manuscript of a memoir she’s writing. Cory does his able best to sell Alex on the job, and on having the chance to rebuild the UBA empire from the ground up. Jennifer Aniston is many things, but one of the best qualities she always has had as an actress is being able to communicate hesitancy. That’s a long way of saying it’s very clear from even this meeting that even as Alex says a definitive no to Cory’s proposal, she’s obviously considering it. By the end of the episode, after Cory calls her again, leaving a voicemail comparing her to a line in a John Milton poem, Alex is convinced to accept the job, as it also comes with the promise of a new primetime show. (It helps that Alex is also convinced based on a surprisingly emotional psychic reading courtesy of guest actress Kathy Najimy. Yes, this is a show where a major decision hinges on a psychic reading, and again: gloriously stupid.)
There is but a single problem, which would be Bradley Jackson. Bradley only finds out about Eric’s move up to the evening news from a guilty Eric himself in the middle of a wild and crazy New Year’s Eve live broadcast. That’s after a heart-to-heart Bradley has with Cory, in which they reflect on the craziness of 2019 and it’s heavily implied that Bradley basically saved Cory’s job. (There’s also some intimation, at least through body language, that Bradley and Cory maybe had an affair, but we’ll presumably find out more about the missing time later in the season.) When Bradley and Cory have their next discussion, it’s far more vicious. Bradley demands that Cory “just be honest” with her, which he refuses because even the slightest remark damages her fragile ego.
The challenge of The Morning Show in its second season is going to be how it handles the looming specter of COVID-19. On one hand, it’s the kind of global news story that has dominated basically everything in existence since March of 2020. For a show about journalism and reporting, it would be creatively dishonest to ignore that. But on the other hand, all of the wheeling and dealing on this show is going to be a lot harder to dramatically invest in with that same gruesome specter lurking outside. The end of “My Least Favorite Year” sets up new problems for the trio of Alex, Bradley, and Cory. (It’s worth noting that the show’s now ex-producer Chip, played by Mark Duplass, is seen briefly here, in a much lower-rent network and eventually proposing to his girlfriend. Since Duplass still makes the opening credits, Chip is no doubt going to play a more important role in later episodes, but he’s barely here. The same goes for Nestor Carbonell as weatherman Yanko, clearly still pining for the show’s old production assistant Claire, who’s absent.) But what are these problems compared to COVID? No doubt, as the final shot features a big, lit-up sign reading “2020”, we’ll find out soon.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.
By Lucy Buglass