As this introduction suggests, the media narratives about “The Morning Show” were always at least as compelling as the series itself — the TV equivalent of an heir who’s been given everything he could possibly want or need and ends up frittering away nearly his entire fortune. In the case of the lumpy first season, it was tempting to give the production a bit of a pass; after #MeToo (and the horrifying allegations against Matt Lauer), the producers had to scrap what they’d planned — a behind-the-scenes look at a morning news show like “Today” — and “start from scratch.” And if the especially ungainly early episodes evinced far more sympathy for Carell’s Mitch, the slimeball who treated the office like his personal pickup bar, than for any of the female characters, at least it course-corrected by the end of the season to tell a compelling sexual misconduct story, the likes of which had been largely overlooked by #MeToo (which of course was never about addressing each and every genus of sexual misbehavior).
But the 10-episode second season just doubles down on the failures of its precursor without the compensatory empathy for or interest in victims. Season 1 grappled with what it takes to really clear the rot out of a corrupt institution, and how much easier it is for those in charge to merely look as if they’re doing so. (For a far more focused exploration of that quandary, watch Netflix’s “The Chair.”)
It takes a while for the new season to reset the table, but here’s how it looks post-shuffle: Several months after Alex’s (Aniston) live exposé of the sexual improprieties covered up by network president Fred (Tom Irwin) and her anguished confession of her complicity in creating a culture of blind eyes among her staff, the show has gone on, with Bradley (Witherspoon) now sharing hosting duties with new anchor Eric (Hasan Minhaj). The fictional “Morning Show’s” overseer Chip (Mark Duplass) remains fired, Mitch has fled to an Italian villa without his family, and former news chief Cory (Crudup) has replaced Fred atop the network and hired Stella (Greta Lee) for his old job.
The maximalist abandon that directs the series dictates that there’ll be far more recurring characters — most played by recognizable, wasted actors such as Néstor Carbonell, Janina Gavankar, Marcia Gay Harden, Mindy Kaling, Holland Taylor, Valeria Golino and Will Arnett — than absorbing story lines. But the most confounding creative choice of the new season is to set it in the first few months of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic and the Democratic presidential primaries. Those who missed the preachy sanctimony of HBO’s “The Newsroom” will find much of it recycled here.
Showrunner Kerry Ehrin has clearly aimed for a more emotionally and ethically complicated exploration of #MeToo and its fallout. While Season 1 built toward the revelation of booker Hannah’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) psychological deterioration following her sexual acquiescence to Mitch — the only story line that it pulled off with grace and poignancy — the new season strives to extend sympathy toward “the canceled” and those fearing imminent “cancellation,” veering off into some wild territory in its sweaty struggles to tug at the heartstrings.
An uneasy Alex finds herself treated like a feminist icon after taking down Fred — a perception she never bothers to disabuse until she has to — and the series is somewhat clever, if far from original, in satirizing the overblown language sometimes used to describe women who take a stand. (“[Alex and Bradley] changed the course of human history,” says oily Cory.) But Ehrin and her writers don’t have more to say about #MeToo than “sometimes people put faith in the wrong individuals” and “creeps have feelings, too,” resulting in a thematic throughline that frays as the season goes along.
“The Morning Show” has become such a media object of fascination, I think, not just because the odds were so heavily stacked in its favor, but because it ultimately squanders so much of its potential. In the second season, improbabilities pile up — my pet “favorites” were tied between a coupling with a stunning lack of chemistry and Julianna Margulies showing up as a credible morning-news candidate despite being styled in many of her scenes like a wraith with a side gig as a dominatrix. Alex spends much of the season fearing that more revelations about her once-close relationship with Mitch will emerge, despite being a veteran journalist who must’ve given an iota of thought at some point in her career to what it must be like to have your secrets relayed to the world against your will. Gluing all this unlikeliness together are the endless monologues — Emmy-friendly close-ups and slowdowns that keep reminding us that “The Morning Show” was always meant to win awards first, and entertain a distant second.
The Morning Show (one hour) returns Friday on Apple TV Plus. New episodes stream weekly.