Gather round, kids, because grandstanding network executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) is rhapsodizing about pinball on The Morning Show. The bumpers, he tells world-famous TV anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), are just there to throw you off your game. "You gotta steel your nerves, keep your eye on the ball, because the game — it's actually down at the flippers," he gushes. "That's where you score the real points." Alex looks at him, puzzled, for a beat. "Thank you for the very weird pep talk, Cory."
Everything about The Morning Show is weirder this season. Launched as a glossy prestige drama about the emotional and political machinations behind the scenes of a successful morning news program, TMS has gone full Smash in season 2. All aspects of the show are bigger: The "Are they kidding with this?" plot twists. The "Wait, did they intend for this to be funny?" spectacle. The frequently ridiculous dialogue. ("It's gonna rise from the ashes like Venus out of the clamshell, and you are Venus!") After watching all 10 episodes of season 2, I still have no idea whether the folks who make TMS believe it's Important TV or just high-priced melodrama. Either way, it's a lot more fun to watch this time around.
The Morning Show (premiering Sept. 17 on Apple TV+) picks up where we left it, in late 2019. After her on-air meltdown exposing the toxic culture at UBA network, Alex is writing a memoir while pondering her future on TV. Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) is newly blond and settling into her role at TMS, with some mentorship from veteran news anchor Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies). UBA News exec Stella Bak (Greta Lee) is pushing to move the network past the Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) era in the face of a looming tell-all book about his sexual misconduct scandal. And weekend anchor Daniel Henderson (Desean Terry) really thinks the show should be paying more attention to that novel coronavirus story coming out of China.
Karen Ballard/Apple TV + Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Billy Crudup on 'The Morning Show'
"Chaos — it's the new cocaine!" Cory declared last season. This year the writers seem to have taken that credo to heart when it comes to the show's tone. Sometimes the stakes are thought-provoking: Mitch, hiding out in rich-person exile, believes his life is over now that he's been "canceled." Then a documentarian named Paola (Valeria Golino) gives him the psychic slap he needs: "You don't need the world to forgive you to do something useful with your brain."
Sometimes, though, the stakes fall squarely into the "extreme media elite" category: Will Cory's pet project, a new streaming service called UBA+, have a successful launch? "I mean, another streaming service?" scoffs Laura. "They should be illegal!" (LOL, platform humor.) There are two (2!) uncomfortable musical numbers, as if morning show anchors breaking into song and dance on air happens regularly in the real world. Lovable actress Kathy Najimy shows up for one (1!) scene as a tarot card reader who stuns Alex with an unexpected observation. At one point, Bradley gets so angry that she picks up an expensive vase and hurls it to the ground. (And I can't even tell you who she's arguing with or why, but trust me, you will not see it coming.)
Apple TV + Julianna Margulies on 'The Morning Show'
It's fun, all this chaos — but it also takes time away from one intriguing, ultimately underdeveloped subplot. Daniel, the only Black anchor on TMS, feels sidelined by the network, which he believes undervalues people of color. That would have been a rich vein to mine with both Daniel and TMS producer Mia Jordan (Karen Pittman), a Black woman who knows the pitfalls of UBA's culture firsthand. They have two substantive conversations about this issue over the course of 10 episodes. I could have used more of those, and less of, say, all that drama with Bradley's addict brother Hal (Joe Tippett).
Still, if The Morning Show is going to pick a lane, perhaps "freeway to Crazy Town" is the best choice — because that's the show Billy Crudup has been starring in since season 1. The Emmy winner tears through Cory's florid dialogue and grandiose monologues with undeniable swagger and winking charm, always just shy of farce. Cory is cowed before only one person: formidable UBA chairwoman Cybil Richards (the equally formidable Holland Taylor). "Actions have consequences," she warns him gravely. "And I keep my temple clean." C'mon, Cybil. Sometimes it's just better to embrace the mess. Grade: B