What to Watch Verdict
'The Morning Show' continues its slow march to the initial onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in this silly, soapy installment.
Reese Witherspoon and Billy Crudup do solid, emotional work, as is often the case
Nestor Carbonell does his best to inject life into a cancel-culture-style storyline
Marcia Gay Harden's sly performance is a sneaky standout
The characters on this show are, as ever, absolutely exhausting, no matter how compelling they may be
The handling of Alex Levy as a character remains frustrating and obnoxious
Allowing even a modicum of sympathy to a character who was outed as a rapist last season is truly baffling and misguided
There is a danger in a show being so firmly committed to representing itself as a time capsule. The Morning Show, in its second season, is making a lot of mistakes, many of them truly unforced errors, but that time-capsule quality may be the worst of all. As we now discuss the fifth episode of the season, “Ghosts,” this marks the halfway point of a season that began by teasing the grim onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is now pretty obvious (though not guaranteed) that the pandemic’s arrival on the shores of the United States is going to be the season's climax, as the show slowly builds by focusing on all the nonsense of the media landscape in advance.
That kind of dichotomy could work if either The Morning Show was a movie, and not a weekly hourlong drama; or if this show was willing to not wait so damn long to unveil the pandemic outside of its Italian subplot featuring Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell). Instead, “Ghosts” begins on Valentine’s Day, as the show focuses on two other major plots, both of which seem particularly trifling in hindsight. The first involves UBA CEO Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) continuing to try and fail to get nasty stories about the deceased Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who ought to get royalty payments from this season for how often her character is mentioned without being seen) out of the press. He starts by trying to shake down his fired predecessor Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin), who points out that part of the negotiated exit package he had essentially allowed for his past indiscretions — or rather, their past indiscretions — to be swept under the rug. Micklen compares himself to Nixon and Ellison to Gerald Ford, the implication being that it’s up to Cory to make things go away or else Fred will continue his muckraking campaign. Cory looks, quite vaguely, for some relief from his swank-hotel neighbor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), who can sympathize about the impact of Hannah’s death but knows much less about what’s currently eating Cory.
Then the action shifts to the other big plot, which is the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas that Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is now begrudgingly moderating. Alex is hyper-focused on the issues that matter as she works with her team, including producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass), on questions for the man in the hot seat ... former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg!
This is what I mean about the time capsule being a problem. Do you remember that fleeting moment in early 2020 when it felt like Bloomberg had even a flying pig’s chance of getting the Democratic presidential nomination? It’s OK if you don’t, because the amount of time you just spent trying to recall that fleeting moment is longer than the fleeting moment even was.
Alex is understandably concerned that her manner of moderating, from her tone to her clothes to the questions she asks or doesn’t ask, will be as heavily criticized as anything the primary candidates do or say. But in hindsight, this scene is truly ridiculous, and not just for the very odd and not-at-all convincing impression one of the employees does as Bernie Sanders, pretending to respond to the question Alex comes up with on the spot, a real softball about how Bloomberg’s past remarks about women could ruin his chances in a general election. (This question, please note, is treated as if it is very shrewd and no one else could have thought of it, and, no. It is extremely basic! Many journalists can think of this!)
Anyway, Alex has to leave the powwow when she’s informed that rival morning-news anchor Audra (Mindy Kaling) is hanging out in her office. Audra’s there to ask Alex permission, or at least her blessing, to have journalist Maggie Brener (Marcia Gay Harden) appear on her show to talk about the dreaded behind-the-scenes tell-all book about UBA. Alex seems as mystified and bothered that Audra’s even there as at the request, but she stiffly approves before wondering why Audra isn’t being as nice to her as she’s always been. Audra, for her part, is wowed that “you actually believe that,” which speaks to an aspect of the characterization of Alex I should acknowledge.
When Alex informs Chip afterwards, it’s to beg him to find Alex a copy of the book; after Chip points out he’s not likely to procure a copy because of the whole “being part of the negative story” thing, she just hisses at him that he’s doing a piss-poor job after returning. It is difficult to watch Jennifer Aniston as Alex, because the character is frequently very exhausting and self-involved in ways that I’m not entirely sure this show grasps. But then, after reading an article like this about Katie Couric’s new book and its shocking, tone-deaf nature, maybe I need to give this show a bit more credit in its characterization of Alex, who feels like a Couric parallel. Just a bit.
From this plot, we move down to the actual soundstage where "The Morning Show" is put on, and weatherman Yanko (Nestor Carbonell) is frustrated to learn that he won’t be sent outside to the plaza like usual for his segments, because of his handling of the “spirit animal” controversy and how the audience disliked his response. When producer Mia (Karen Pittman) tells him the plan is for him to do a filmed segment with a Seminole tribe in Florida soon, he’s bothered and rightly notes that doing so in a filmed segment seems a lot less genuine than doing so in his private time. The head-scratcher here (aside from Yanko’s complaints about the progressivism of his UBA overlords) is that we get so little understanding or awareness of how people outside of the UBA bubble actually respond to the events on this show-within-a-show. Do audiences dislike Yanko’s response? We know that UBA executive Stella (Greta Lee) is bothered, but Mia presents it as an audience issue too, and for a show about the media to just ignore the presence of the audience is weird and leads to frustrating moments like this. Yanko’s problems are likely about to get worse, though, after he sees a jackass insult Stella for “bringing the China virus” to the States and beats him up in full view of some passers-by, right outside the UBA office. Right sentiment, wrong place.
There's no more apt use of the adjective "frustrating" than in discussing what's going on in Italy, with Mitch and his new filmmaker friend Paola (Valeria Golino), as they wrap on filming her to-the-screen narration of the documentary she’s working on. Mitch compliments her before emphasizing that “we’re not going to sleep with each other,” which I’m sure is a big load off Paola’s mind. She points out that he didn’t have to quarantine with her, which he says he did because he likes her company in spite of his own damage. As a reminder, the damage (which Paola says she likes about him) includes him having raped a woman who then overdosed and died. Damage! That’s a way to put it!
Paola then reveals her real agenda: she wants to interview Mitch. At first, he resists but eventually gives in, talking about his newfound awareness of Hannah’s internal struggle. For now, I will only say that as weaponized as Steve Carell’s charm can be, turning that weapon on making a sexual predator sympathetic is ... uh ... a choice.
Back in Cory’s apartment, his assistant updates him on his schedule, including a mysterious trip to Green Bay that no one else knows about. And then, because why not, his assistant tells him that he’s heard none other than Bradley and fellow UBA journalist Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies) are hooking up with each other. Cory laughs it off at first, but after his assistant leaves, he flashes back to a key moment between him and Bradley, right before her now-infamous trip to the UBA board to demand Cory keep his job. It’s a key moment primarily because it looks like the two of them are about to hook up romantically (though the action cuts away before they embrace). Cory sure looks like he’s hung up on Bradley, because, well, again, why not. That’s this show’s motto, by the way: “Y’know, why not?”
But let’s get back to Cory and those mysterious plans to Green Bay. What’s in Wisconsin, you ask? None other than the father of Hannah Shoenfeld, played here by ever-reliable character actor David Paymer, as a very grouchy bartender. Hannah’s father is understandably angry with UBA, knowing who Cory is before he introduces himself and begs the older man to take the settlement instead of $119.2 million, a number which is more symbolic than anything else of how UBA was willing to pay off Fred Micklen to go away. Even after warning Hannah’s father about the upcoming smear campaign, he’s unwilling to budge.
Laura, as it happens, is hitching a ride to Vegas with Bradley, Alex and Chip, partly to interview Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but partly to spend time with Bradley. Either way, Alex is none too pleased, hissing about needing an Advil for her back and that Laura makes her uncomfortable to Chip, who looks ready to strangle her. It’s just a fun trip on the private jet, you guys! When they arrive, Chip and Alex are both displeased and terribly bad at hiding it when they see none other than Maggie Brener, who sees their awful attempt at hiding but is polite enough to ignore them. Ah, but that’s not all: after Chip reveals his elephant-like memory about some of Alex’s past comments, which she has conveniently forgotten, Alex presumes correctly that he spoke to Maggie for the book. He admits this, and Alex takes it quite well, forgiving Chip immediately and making it water under the bridge. Oh, who am I kidding, she takes it terribly, shouting and swearing and whining almost all in one breath. Charming.
For the viewer at home, Laura helps make Alex seem even more charming. Earlier in the episode, Alex noted that Laura has always disliked her and she has no idea why, but if Laura’s telling the truth, she has an extremely good reason to dislike Alex. Back in the late 1990s, when Laura and Alex were newer in the business and friendly, Alex found out that Laura was “a lesbian,” a phrase Julianna Margulies purrs out to add a few more syllables just for fun. And then, soon after, so did a rival network; that, coupled with Alex choosing to ignore Laura moving forward, makes her believe Alex gossiped to the wrong people (or perhaps to the right people).
Bradley’s shocked by this news, though she’s likely to be more shocked soon enough. She gets a text from Cory, and after she calls (with Laura talking in the background), Cory realizes the gossip his own assistant shared was true about Bradley and Laura. Pressing on, he asks Bradley if he should pursue whatever action necessary to avoid getting the nasty stories about Hannah published. She says he should, but there’s just one wrinkle: only one publication is likely to run the story, and Cory’s been informed that the only way to get the story booted is to have a more salacious story run ... like, say, a romance between two female journalists.
The last scene of the episode continues the charm offensive for Alex, who decides to go straight to the source and visit Maggie Brener’s room in the desperate hope of getting a copy of the book. Though Maggie has no copies at hand, she does have a mock-up that reveals the title — “The Wrong Side of the Bed” — and the image of Mitch and Alex smiling at each other. If that’s not horrific enough, Maggie confirms that the book states the two anchors slept together. Alex is adamant that this is untrue, and that publishing the book would “ruin the country,” a level of grandiosity that I hadn’t imagined this show would reach. But Alex is just that impressive. In the final moments, we watch Alex back on the private jet — Bradley is now moderating the debate in her place as Alex flies back to parts unknown.
Halfway through the season, The Morning Show continues to be aggressively ridiculous, self-important and operatic often in the same scene. And as we now look toward the next five episodes, I should note that one of my great fears of the season may well not come true: If the show keeps up this snail-level pacing, I won’t have to worry about the UBA team reporting on the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, thank God. But the pandemic will presumably rear its head before the season closes. Maybe we should start betting now who’s going to get the virus.
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.