“The Morning Show” is the showiest of Apple TV+’s new series, starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in a drama with a timely tie-in to the back-in-the-headlines scandal surrounding Matt Lauer’s “Today” show exit. As executed, though, hold that wake-up call, considering that most of its big ideas essentially rehash ground “Network” covered more than 40 years ago.
Aniston plays Alex Levy, the longtime host of UBA’s morning show, which is suddenly rocked (stop if you’ve heard this one) when co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is canned amid an onslaught of sexual-misconduct allegations.
Alex is strong and exacting, but also insecure about her hold on the chair, seeking assurances from her producer (Mark Duplass) that, with a new executive overseeing the program, he’s unable to provide her.
Enter Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson, who is struggling as a small-market reporter in West Virginia when a viral video punches her ticket for a trip to New York, a bit like Dorothy’s sudden flight from Kansas to Oz.
CNN’s Brian Stelter – author of the “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV” – is a consulting producer on the series, which is clearly informed by that 2013 book’s insights about the inner workings of morning television. That includes a lot of talk about creating a “family,” not just among the talent featured but projecting that aura to the audience to forge the ties that will keep them watching.
After that, though, showrunner Kerry Ehrin (“Bates Motel”), producer-director Mimi Leder and their team are clearly content to use that foundation merely as a jumping-off point to the drama, which takes an improbable, unconvincing turn in the second episode as a strained means to a storytelling end.
This is one of those shows, moreover, where the star power in some respects works against it. Although he has demonstrated his dramatic chops, Carell still comes across as a bit too likable as Mitch pushes back against his career implosion while the viewer is treated to aerial shots of his mansion – insisting that he’s a philanderer, yes, but not a predator.
“I didn’t invent extracurricular sex,” he protests early on.
The same goes for Witherspoon, who radiates a little too much movie-star vibe to be wholly convincing as a character who isn’t exactly the Deborah Norville to Jane Pauley (Google it, kids), even if that’s how Alex perceives her.
In ways, the most significant character is also the most cliched: Billy Crudup plays Cory Ellison, the new network suit in charge of the show, who comes from the entertainment division and sees the sexual-harassment unraveling as an opportunity to make the necessary changes to jump-start the ratings.
“Let’s use this to reinvent ourselves,” he says, betraying that Cory is intended to make the Faye Dunaway character from “Network” look like Edward R. Murrow.
“The Morning Show” isn’t bad, just generally unimpressive, all the more so given the talent involved and the imperative for these new streaming services (up next: Disney+) to make a good impression right out of the box. (Apple TV+ has three more shows launching this week as part of its opening salvo, reviews to come.)
The series opens with Carell’s character receiving the proverbial 3 a.m. call, bringing him a big dose of bad news.
To the extent “The Morning Show” is Apple’s way of sounding the alarm for its new service, feel safe to hit the “snooze” button.
“The Morning Show” premieres Nov. 1 on Apple TV+.