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Star Power Carries 'The Morning Show'
November 1, 2019  | By David Hinckley

It's a problem when a program called The Morning Show makes you want to roll over and go back to sleep.

The Morning Show, a lavish production featuring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon as television news personalities, arrives Friday as the centerpiece of Apple's new streaming service, Apple TV+.

A half dozen other new Apple TV+ shows also roll out Friday, but this is the one Apple most hopes viewers will discover, love, and pay for.

Toward that end, Apple has poured a lot of money into the show. Besides Witherspoon and Aniston, the cast includes Steve Carell, and let's guess none of them came cheap.

If money was no object, though, Apple might have considered counting out a few more dollars for a rewrite of the script, which too often stumbles and takes the characters down with it.

Aniston plays Alex Levy, cohost of a national morning show much like Today or GMA. For the past 15 years, her cohost has been Mitch Kessler (Carell).

As Alex explains it in one of her several over-the-top scenes, she has sacrificed everything else in her life, including her husband and daughter, to reach this summit and remain there, holding her turf against the many others who wish they were Alex Levy.

Then one morning – early one morning – her producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) greets her at the door with the news that Mitch has been fired in the wake of allegations that he had inappropriate sexual relations with multiple female staff members.

Alex goes on the air as scheduled and tries to walk a line. She will miss "the person I knew," she says. She also says she stands behind a network that will not sweep sexual misconduct charges under the rug.

Viewers are free at this point to extrapolate Mitch Kessler as Matt Lauer, and Alex as the rest of the real-life Today show team after Lauer was fired for multiple sexual indiscretions with staffers. Second choice: Charlie Rose and the CBS morning show staff.

In any case, the real drama on The Morning Show has just begun.

It seems the network already had some concerns that Alex and Mitch had slipped from the top of their game, a concern most openly voiced by network director of news operations Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup).

Until a year ago, Ellison worked in the entertainment division, and he's convinced the future of network news shows lies in providing more entertainment and fewer dry, boring facts – which, he says, viewers can get anywhere.

This signals, not subtly, that Ellison may have a twofer in mind, replacing Alex as well as Mitch.

Enter Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), an ambitious, emotional, and somewhat jaded reporter for a local TV station in the Midwest. She gets the attention of Ellison – we won't spoil how, though it's entirely professional – and, well, you do the math.

Jackson simmers with anger, frustration, and impulsive energy that she struggles to tame because it has crippled her career in the past. She still seems coiled, capable of exploding, and that would be good news for The Morning Show if she were given better words to explode with.

The Morning Show has set itself up to tackle two of the most difficult, nuanced, and contentious issues of modern TV journalism: what to do with high-profile air personalities charged with serious harassment and whether news shows need entertainment to survive.

HBO's The Newsroom covered some of that turf a couple of years ago, and not badly. The Newsroom also illustrated a problem faced by many shows centering on media issues: Those issues often seem more urgent and fascinating to the media itself than to the civilian audience.

The Morning Show raises a different concern. It simply doesn't deal with those issues in a very perceptive manner.

Characters who nominally make their living with words articulate their views and defenses as if they're recycling lines they've heard a hundred times before. They also don't make arguments sharply, veering off into exchanges that seem written more to advance the plot than reflect what those characters likely would have said.

The Morning Show then lathers its characters with layers of soapy personal minidramas, a development we soon realize is no accident.

Somewhere around the tenth or fifteenth lingering close-up of Aniston, it's hard to avoid wondering whether the focal point here is stars, not story.

Yes, it's true that Aniston is back, and in the TV star world, that's a big deal. Facing her off against Witherspoon doesn't hurt. It gives Apple TV+ a high-profile kickoff that should draw eyeballs, as they say in the TV biz. But absent a better-told story, as they also say in the TV biz, those eyeballs may stop gazing at the stars sometime before the closing credits.

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