What to Watch Verdict
Though 'The Morning Show' finally lets the pandemic collide into its characters, the result is as frustrating and poorly handled as ever.
After many episodes separating them, Jennifer Aniston and Julianna Margulies have solid, if edgy, chemistry together
Margulies, overall, continues to be a bright light of this second season
This show's inability to accurately grapple with characters who are proudly unlikable is its biggest weak spot
The attempt to deify Mitch Kessler in his death is horrifying and misguided
The self-involved nature of the characters is another Achilles heel
This post contains spoilers for The Morning Show. Check out our last review here.
Well, it was inevitable. The season-long arc of The Morning Show, aside from slowly documenting the loss in sanity among anyone who watches it (hello!), has been surrounding the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The pandemic has been gradually creeping up on the self-involved ninnies who make up this program’s ensemble, as they realize that their problems amount to very little in the face of an invisible virus that can wipe out countless people around the world. So it was inevitable that someone on the show, a regular character, would contract COVID before the season was over. And if you had Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) on your bingo card as the lucky recipient of the deadly virus, congratulations to you!
Perhaps it makes the most sense that the most self-involved person on this show — and boy, is that saying a lot — would be the one to get COVID. Earlier in the season, when UBA anchor Daniel (Desean K. Terry) traveled to Wuhan to cover the first weeks of the pandemic, it seemed like he might be the unlucky winner of the COVID raffle, if only because he was closest to the situation. But at this point, as we talk about “Testimony,” the penultimate episode of the season, it looks at though Daniel was simply the smartest person in the room, realizing that COVID was going to be a big deal before everyone else did. So instead, it’s Alex — who traveled to COVID hot spot Italy and has been back in the States for a little while, already reeling from the death of her ex-co-anchor and garbage person Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) — who has the virus and ends this episode in the emergency room.
But let’s go back to the beginning. Alex ended the last episode telling Mitch’s ex-wife Paige (Embeth Davidtz) that he had died in Italy, only to realize exactly how much Paige hated Alex’s guts for things like, oh, you know, sleeping with Mitch and pretending she hadn’t. When she gets back to her apartment, she falls asleep, but not before grabbing Mitch’s written statement about their relationship (or rather, lying about their lack of one) and holding onto it like it’s a stuffed animal, which isn’t weird at all.
Bradley (Reese Witherspoon), meanwhile, is dealing again with her slacker/addict brother Hal (Joe Tippett), who made a massive scene in the previous episode by breaking things in the UBA break room, carousing drunkenly and singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” at the top of his lungs. Now that he’s a bit more sober, Hal apologizes as much as possible, while also implying that it’s really Bradley who made him want to hurt her at all because of how she hurt him. How she hurt him? Let’s not wonder about those trifling details. In the moment, Hal offers to go to rehab, to get help of some kind, which seems like an encouraging sign.
Less encouraging is how Will Arnett is being used for such ill purposes on The Morning Show. Personal bias shining through here, but man, Arnett deserves more than to play Alex’s hapless agent, Doug, who joins her as she returns to UBA to meet with execs Cory (Billy Crudup) and Stella (Greta Lee). Though Doug expects her to get yelled at, Cory and Stella are both immensely understanding of Alex’s time off and her trip to Italy. But Alex has a surprise for everyone else: she’s giving her $25 million salary back and leaving UBA on March 16, the day before the book written by Maggie Brener (Marcia Gay Harden) is published.
“I’m going to be canceled,” Alex says, and listen, there’s just no way to watch a person say something like that, and say it sincerely, without it being immensely, unintentionally funny. It is funnier because Alex is serious, and I’m fairly sure the show is too. Woof. But Alex goes onto emphasize to Cory privately that it’s because a) she slept with Mitch, b) she did it willingly, and c) she doesn’t regret it. No matter how tortured a metaphor Cory can come up with — this time, it has to do with pinball and the best strategy to win, and this is yet further proof that Billy Crudup is trying his damnedest to spin gold from very weak straw — Alex is resolute to give back her salary and leave the show.
As resolute as Alex is, she’s still not willing to tell Bradley what’s actually going on, even after the younger anchor offers to meet up with her for drinks. Things get more awkward for her when none other than Paige visits the UBA office to briefly speak about Mitch’s loss. She’s there to invite the UBA staffers to Mitch’s memorial service in a week, but manages to get in a good glare at Alex (which is the least she deserves, let’s be honest).
The awkwardness ramps up when it’s time for Alex’s return on the first weekday of March 2020. With Bradley taking Hal to rehab, Alex is joined on The Morning Show by Laura (Margulies). “Can you imagine if we have to live through that all over again?”, Alex asks Laura quietly during the show’s intro regarding past epidemics as they watch a clip about the second COVID-19 death in the United States, and strangely again, the word “FORESHADOWING” does not appear in big black letters at the bottom of the screen.
I do want to note that this show’s writing is always baffling to me, and here’s a tiny example of why. As the show begins to go live, Alex quickly asks Laura to tee her up for a story that she wants to tell at the very top, and Laura happily agrees. What, you may ask, is the story? Well, we never find out. Why have the setup without the payoff?
And why have us watch Julianna Margulies and Jennifer Aniston learn that they should wash their hands for 20 seconds to help combat the spread of the coronavirus? Well, there’s no good answer, but we do get that scene. We also get the scene where they sing a scripted song — that is meant to look unscripted, but the teleprompter deliberately indicates otherwise — that mimics “Happy Birthday” in terms of being long enough to underscore the hand-washing. You never thought you’d want to see Margulies and Aniston sing in pitchy harmony on a song like this, and frankly, I’m mortified on Margulies’ behalf.
Also mortifying is the subsequent scene where Bradley drops Hal off at rehab, and the latter becomes immediately very angry and suicidal once he learns that his sister won’t be willing to visit him after his stint in rehab is over. Hal threatens to overdose with the money Bradley has given him, but Bradley tearfully tells him that he needs to take ownership of his life. If only we could move on from this storyline.
But back to Laura and Alex. After the Monday show is over, they talk things over in Laura’s dressing room when Alex bluntly asks Laura why she doesn’t like our antihero. Alex once again acts totally unaware of her own behavior, even when Laura points out that coming out as she did — unwillingly, as you may recall — meant she needed friends at a time when Alex decided she needed space. Laura shrewdly notes that Alex liked to talk, and Alex basically owns up to the whole “Yes, I gossiped about you being a lesbian” thing without much resistance. Laura calmly notes that the gossip Alex now sees as vicious only feels that way because people are gossiping about her. God, I wish this show was about Julianna Margulies. I want her back as the leading lady on a drama deserving of her talents again.
As the week continues, Cory finds himself as a guest on one of his own network’s talk shows, hosted by Peter Bullard (Dave Foley, returning again). Let’s leave aside for a minute the hard-to-swallow detail that a network executive would be a guest on a talk show (in part because would the audience care? Really?). The real purpose of the talk-show bit is for Cory to publicly invite Maggie Brener onto UBA to talk about her upcoming book, and I can only hope that Foley was paid well for such a brief scene. (Seriously. He’s funny. This show is not.)
This leads Cory to later ask Bradley to do the interview, because “I know you’ll be fair.” Bradley seems conflicted, especially since she’ll be getting an advance copy, but it is here that I must again reiterate: how many people will care about this book? This show’s so insular that it is hard to imagine anyone outside of the tiny media bubble giving a hoot.
Midway through the episode, we get a blast from the past from the show's first season: ex-production assistant Claire (Bel Powley, inexplicably listed in the opening credits despite not appearing previously this year). Weatherman Yanko (Nestor Carbonell) is out and about watching testimony from Dr. Anthony Fauci on the pandemic when he runs into Claire. At first, it’s all laughs and smiles, until Claire realizes that Yanko will be attending Mitch’s memorial service. “He raped my friend! He raped Hannah!” Claire furiously, and accurately, points out. She also lets slip that she’s been helping Hannah’s family cover their legal fees as they attempt to sue UBA for the same amount of money paid to ex-exec Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin), before she angrily leaves.
It is, I want to note, particularly galling that Claire, who drops in for three minutes this season, is the sole voice of reason in terms of how Mitch Kessler should be treated, both in life and in death. Her brief appearance is just a further sign that this show is more invested in making Mitch likable to counterbalance the whole “I was a sexual predator” thing. It’s a baffling, disturbing creative choice.
Later, Bradley is at the publishing house releasing Maggie’s book, invited into a private area to begin reading in preparation for her interview. It is a particularly funny detail (and it made me laugh whether or not it’s supposed to) that the first thing Bradley does is flip to the index to see how often she’s mentioned in the book. (Less than Alex is, as you’d expect.) The brief snippets of the book we hear, courtesy of Witherspoon’s voiceover, do imply this much: Alex was right to be worried about Brener, as it appears that she is a big target of the book. I do want to point out, though, that the entire season has, perhaps by accident, gone out of its way to establish that Alex Levy is kind of an awful person. It’s not fair that in a symbiotic relationship like this she’d be treated so poorly compared to Mitch, but Alex’s actions speak extremely loudly.
Now, speaking once again of funny Canadian men who were hopefully well compensated for meager appearances in this episode, Martin Short. Short was especially masterful and hilarious in the Hulu comedy Only Murders in the Building, so I suppose there must be balance in the karmic scales, which is why he re-appears here as a controversial entertainer at Mitch’s memorial, unironically uttering the line, “Cause of death: cancel culture.” I wish I understood why this show was bending over backwards to make Mitch a pitiable figure, instead of a sexual predator whose actions inspired a woman to kill herself.
After Short’s brief appearance, we see that Alex has arrived at the memorial service, where she’s first greeted by Paola (Valeria Golino), who she helped fly from Italy. Alex offers to help Paola with her documentary, but encourages her to figure things out quickly because, in case you hadn’t heard, she’s about to be canceled. So why not interrupt the proceedings and make a big speech? Alex does so, going on for a few minutes about how the media world is always about working harder and pushing further, and so on and so on, as well as some nonsense about how Mitch was becoming a better person. This is The Morning Show at its most self-congratulatory and ridiculous, because there is exceedingly little evidence that Mitch was trying to be a better person, as much as Mitch was trying very hard to be left alone because he didn’t want to do the hard work of becoming a better person.
It’s a scene whose nonsense is coupled only by the interview between Bradley and Maggie Brener. To hash it all out here would require something close to a self-lobotomy, because of how enormously self-serving and ignorant the scene is in its intent: to let Bradley take Alex off the hook and portray Maggie as a spiteful and mean would-be journalist who wants to air dirty laundry instead of report the story of a changed woman; said woman being Alex. Bradley gets to act shocked that a famous news journalist would be on the cover of a book alleging various misdeeds she committed or allowed to occur on her watch, while chiding Maggie for not reporting the story of how she got her job at UBA, because, please remember, for each character on this show, the story is all about them and no one else. It’s ridiculous and stupid, as this show often is.
“How does any of that make sense?” Laura asks Bradley afterwards, pointing out accurately that Bradley used to be Alex’s number-one enemy (including earlier this very season) and that she had wanted much of the information in Maggie’s book to be revealed. (This is where I should note that as much as I like Margulies’ performance, this show pointing out its own inconsistencies is not an excuse for the existence of those inconsistencies. If you know your flaws, fix them.)
Laura then says that because of her “heart condition,” she’s going to head to her Montana ranch while the pandemic hopefully blows over, inviting Bradley to join her. “I don’t like it when my woman works,” Laura says wryly, before saying she has a studio on the ranch that Bradley could use. “Am I your woman?” Bradley asks hopefully. Laura says she is, and I am all for more Margulies, so if that’s what it takes for her to return (if this show gets a third season), then good. All would be well until Bradley’s given an envelope by her doorman: it’s the money she gave Hal.
And now, we approach the ending, thank God. Alex, in bed, is horrified by Twitter, which had seemed encouraging after the interview. The problem is, some secret someone filmed her at Mitch’s memorial service, and in revealing that she visited him in Italy, social media has turned on her. (As they should. Sheesh.) As a broadcaster notes that Alex endangered her co-workers by exposing them potentially to COVID, she freaks out, slips on a high heel and knocks herself out. She wakes up in a hospital bed, where she calls Doug, who tells her that Chip found her with a minor concussion and also...oh yeah, she has COVID. (“I’ve been canceled,” she says tearfully just beforehand.)
Alex Levy has just endangered her entire network by giving them exposure to a virus, but what matters more? That she might have been canceled! We'll find out next week how right she ends up being.
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.