What to Watch Verdict
It's nice to see Julianna Margulies in a TV show again, but 'The Morning Show' continues its wrong-footed approach this week.
Julianna Margulies seems very well-cast as an enigmatic and intelligent TV anchor/power broker
It's nice to see her bring out a softer side of Reese Witherspoon's performance
The show spends less time with intentionally bad jokes about COVID this week
The reveal of Bradley's sexual preference is ... ill-handled
It remains difficult to understand how this show feels about its characters
The self-serving nature of the leads is exhausting as always
Somehow, it took me until the third episode of the second season of The Morning Show to fully understand what is going on with this prestige drama from Apple TV Plus. Oh, sure, from the outside in, “what is going on” is pretty easily summarized: it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a nationally televised morning show from the perspective of its anchors, producers and network executives. In the same vein as The Newsroom and other Aaron Sorkin-style dramas, The Morning Show is intended to offer a glimpse of how the news is packaged and created to the masses, while also telling stories of frustrated personalities, contentious backbiting and more. On the surface, yes, that’s what is going on here.
But no, there’s a stealth satire burrowed underneath the surface, so stealthy that even the people making The Morning Show don’t quite realize it. “Laura”, the third episode of the new season, makes it clear: The Morning Show is about the worst, most incompetent, most self-righteous and foolish schmucks and the terrible TV network they have all created. That can be the only explanation for the faux-profound, self-important nonsense that clutters not only this episode but much of the series to date. As ever, this show is dementedly compelling, full of so many impressive actors working overtime to sell material in genuine ways, but its charms are entirely accidental.
As was the case in the first two episodes of the season, there are two parallel story tracks in “Laura.” In the first, we follow Daniel (Desean K. Terry), the sole UBA newsman sent to Wuhan, China, to cover the story of the novel coronavirus epidemic that’s threatening to expand well beyond Asia. The episode begins with Daniel being informed that he’s got to leave his Wuhan hotel and get out of China entirely because the city is being shut down. Though he and his team are fortunate enough to get on the literal last train out of Wuhan — not by identifying themselves as working for UBA, but by lying about one of their parents being ill in Beijing — Daniel is forced to quarantine for 14 days by the network.
Throughout the episode, we jump back to him as he files satellite reports to "The Morning Show," whose anchors Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) and the outgoing Eric Nomani (Hasan Minhaj) laugh about this crazy phrase Daniel keeps using ... what’s it called again? Social distancing? What’s social distancing? Oh, we’re laughing, aren’t we? (Trick question, because we are not, in the real world.)
Daniel tries to no avail to convince producer Mia (Karen Pittman) that, hey, this whole COVID-19 might be kinda, sorta, a little bit serious. She, in turn, yells at him over the phone and tells him to be more of a man. Classy! (This is where the writing really serves to emphasize how absolutely idiotic the people running this morning show are, because, well, hindsight being 20/20, Daniel is clearly the smartest man in the room.)
The other track within “Laura” refers to the title character, Laura Peterson, a well-respected UBA anchor who started out on "The Morning Show" before becoming the network’s resident Barbara Walters, in terms of being a respected primetime journalist. Laura is played by the always delightful and enigmatic Julianna Margulies, bringing her requisite fierce, tough nature to a character who seems instantly unknowable because the returning star Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) presumes Laura is out to get her during a lengthy interview at her apartment designed to help facilitate her return to "The Morning Show." UBA exec Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), meanwhile, quietly asks Laura to mentor Bradley while visiting her during coverage of the 2020 Democratic caucuses in Iowa.
Bradley’s behavior is slightly less obnoxious in this episode, which really only serves to emphasize how very inconsistently the character is written and performed week to week, but after she backtalks Cory in full view of the rest of the "Morning Show" staff, he feels Laura’s the best one to walk Bradley through her rough-and-tumble behavior.
If Laura’s interview with Alex is slightly on edge, the exact opposite is true with her interactions with Bradley. She soon comes clean to Bradley about Cory’s request, but says that she thinks Bradley’s ready to go as she is. But that’s not all! In a car ride after returning from Iowa, Laura asks Bradley point blank, but not on camera, if she was vetted at all for the job, a question that Bradley returns ... by kissing Laura, who gladly returns the embrace. Now, let’s be fair, this romantic coupling is hinted at when Cory says, and not at all awkwardly, that Laura puts “the L in LGBTQIA,” and my hand to God, that is a direct quote.
Who’s to say what’s going to happen with these two characters? (The ads have teased that Margulies will be a major part of the overall season, and she’s listed among the regular cast members now, though inexplicably billed fifth. This is Alicia Florrick, people!) But the randomness of this embrace is hilariously jarring, almost like an inverse of the strangest, most batty scene in Law & Order history, when a female ADA was fired and her deadpan response was “Is this because I’m a lesbian?”, a character trait that was revealed to the audience literally as she asked the question and then vanished with zero context.
That someone would be attracted to Laura is perfectly believable, but Bradley is herself such an enigma that it’s hard to know how much of her attraction is genuine versus just being pleased that someone with more experience seems impressed by her own talent. It’s also worth noting that the show has carefully sidestepped showing the missing time between when Alex and Bradley strove to create a united front after revealing all on live TV and when the second season picks up, and much of the animus between Bradley and Cory previously hinted at a possible romantic dalliance. (Which could still be true, of course! But it speaks to how little we really know these idiotic characters.)
Alex, meanwhile, has a much more predictable point of frustration against Laura. Her assumption that the veteran anchor is out to get her is based on her asking something that wasn’t pre-vetted, about the nature of her relationship with Kessler (Steve Carell). Alex presumes this is meant to make the viewer think she and Mitch were hooking up, and slips back into her old ways of trying to over-control everything when hashing it out angrily afterwards with her returned producer Chip (Mark Duplass). And yet, as much as Alex is angry about the implication, it’s an implication that either she only picks up on or is a question poorly delivered by Margulies. The assumption that Alex and Mitch were together simply isn’t there (or doesn’t come across as such).
Mitch, meanwhile, is still shacked up in Italy (poor Mitch!), trying to avoid the clutches of both his fellow fallen UBA employee Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin) and the overly friendly Paola (Valeria Golino). Fred is as dismissive as ever of the dead woman at the center of much of this season’s drama, Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), trying to get Mitch on his side to fight back against the lawsuit being levied by her family that the network simply wants to make disappear. On the other side, Paola is trying to get Mitch to work with her on a documentary about a rape allegation in Italy, and it’s only after he sees the edited interview between Alex and Laura that he tells her he’s in. (Random guess time: I could be completely wrong, but it would not surprise me in the least if Paola has an ulterior motive or is working with someone on the UBA side — or hell, even Fred — to catch Mitch up regarding his past.)
Like I said at the top: I have become convinced that The Morning Show is not just about the worst (if fictional) television network in American media, but that its writers and creators are aware of how bad UBA and its denizens are, and that’s the satirical point. That has to be the point.
Take, for instance, an early moment in which Alex, Cory and a few others watch an early ad touting the return of Alex to "The Morning Show," in which Malickian imagery of purple mounted majesties, sweeping plains and hills and pure Americana are coupled with an outrageously profound and sonorous narrator talking about how everyone is waiting for the big announcement. It’s a terrible ad, but one that the UBA viewers think look amazing. And it’s all in service...of a morning talk show. These people may not know how far up their own asses their heads are, but the people making this drama do. Right? That has to be it. Right?
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.