The first season of “The Morning Show” ended in an explosion; the new one begins, as the experienced TV viewer might expect, with characters picking up the pieces. But that’s about the only thing that’s predictable this time around.
When, at the end of the flawed but increasingly compelling first season, Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy and Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson turned on their bosses and excoriated them on-air, it felt earned. More and more, though, a series with too much story seems to have lost the plot.
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It is challenging to describe the antic turns this season of television makes without substantial spoilers, but I’ll say this much: Much time is spent, early on, rearranging puzzle pieces so that Alex and Bradley may find themselves working together again. Or, rather, working at cross-purposes. Though they went through a crucible together — and though the striking conclusion to Season 1 suggested the potency of their collaboration — the watchword is once again rivalrous distrust. This sense of division exists in the shadow of Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), the show’s disgraced former anchor living in exile in Italy (a beautiful place in which to ring in 2020!). And it is gingerly encouraged by Billy Crudup’s network chair Cory Ellison, the show’s one consistently realized major character.
The Alex-Bradley rivalry remains among the show’s most carefully drawn elements, which is a tricky and unfortunate thing. Crudup’s 2020 Emmy win prompted the uncomfortable realization that a show about two women taking on systemic forces had, in its first 10 episodes, put more verve into writing the systemic forces than those struggling against them. (In the new season, Cory’s toxic engagement with a news chief played by Greta Lee provides a rare bit of insight into racial, gender, and age differences in the workplace; the difference may be that the two executives, unlike an executive and his talent, are on relatively even footing.)
And the show doesn’t so much deepen Alex or Bradley so much as toss on new, unexpected traits. As she throws herself into work alongside a new mentor figure (Julianna Margulies), Bradley experiences an awakening of a side of herself we might never have guessed, despite an entire previous season spent with her character. People are complicated and surprising, but the job of a well-told story is to deliver emotional truth throughout. Even as Witherspoon works hard, much of Bradley’s plotline feels like a rebuke to those who thought they knew where the story was going.
Meanwhile, Alex takes her shot at a comeback, but due to unresolved feelings about Mitch, soon finds herself torching her career for a second time, eventually going missing from the set. Alex’s decisions, we’re informed, come from a place of grief and anxiety. But the diffidence in writing the Mitch character make it feel implausible that he’s the center of anyone’s emotional life. There’s a fatal unbalance as Alex spins out, in a minutely detailed personal and professional crisis, over a character depicted in broad and not particularly artful strokes.
For Mitch is just kind of around the story’s margins, still, in Italian isolation. And when he finally really enters the story, it’s through a series of distracting reversals that only emphasize a fundamental uncertainty about how to deal with a seemingly good person who’s done bad things. That’s the point of the character and perhaps of the show, but it’s a question that hazily flickers in and out of view, and one ultimately resolved with shocking carelessness.
Perhaps the volatility of “The Morning Show’s” second season is intended to rhyme with its subject matter. In the time period covered, news itself came to feel as though it was designed by an overcaffeinated writers’ room. And those who recall the first season’s incorporation of real-world events will not be stunned that COVID is indeed a story point, and that “The Morning Show” documents the months leading up to one of the biggest news stories of Alex and Bradley’s careers. Or so it’d seem to us: Within the world of “The Morning Show,” the meta-story is what matters. And, as COVID comes home, both Alex and Bradley get the chance to follow their Howard Beale moment with a Walter Cronkite one, reassuring the American people about the consistency and security of what matters most. Which is to say that both speak to their audience about what’s been happening at “The Morning Show.”
On balance, “taking on COVID,” while an understandably tempting choice for a show that loves Big Issues, feels like a tasteless mistake. The show’s perspective on the pandemic is that it’s crazy that it happened to Alex and Bradley’s workplace. There’s a fundamental problem of perspective at work here. “The Morning Show” — in a manner that recalls HBO’s late, unlamented “The Newsroom” — has very little point-of-view about its central broadcast, other than that it’s of paramount importance to those who work there. And of course it is. Every job is important to the person doing it. But the series, so attuned to barometric changes in personal relationships, has too little irony about the fact that its warring journalists are fighting for the right to — well, sometimes inform the public, but more often anchor “A Tribute to Groucho Marx.”
That’s especially frustrating because, when we zoom out on Alex and Bradley’s broadcast, the show glimmers with a rare wit. Among the canniest shots in the series is one in which two “Morning Show” anchors lead a seemingly improvised session of nonsense songs to demonstrate just how long one should wash one’s hands in order to prevent the spread of COVID. The camera pulls back to reveal that all these off-the-cuff lyrics were, in fact, written for them, and fed into the TelePrompTer; these hosts can’t break free from the script even as the story is about to radically change.
It’s in moments like these, or Greta Lee’s character being torn between her instincts and the chain of command, or the persistent thwarting of a would-be network star played by Desean Terry, that the show feels as if it’s beginning to say something. (Even a running joke about the network’s streaming service, launching into a pandemic, suggests a shrewd wit that can most clearly be heard when the bustle of the plot machinations slow down a touch.) Too often, “The Morning Show’s” second season is satisfied with the easiness of shock — of announcing itself, though not communicating much of note, in a blare. But the show it might have been, or might still be, is there, just barely avoiding being drowned out.
“The Morning Show” launches Friday, Sept. 17, on Apple TV Plus.
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