Television

The Morning Show Is a Triumph of Bad Taste

And a rich text for Jennifer Aniston scholars.

Jennifer Aniston leans against a car window, looking forlorn, in The Morning Show.
Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show.
Apple TV+

The seventh episode of The Morning Show, the new Apple TV+ series set behind the scenes of a morning news program, opens with Billy Crudup tearing into a falafel sandwich. “Best falafel in all five boroughs!” he says to the guy next to him, who is desperate to start scheming, not make small talk about the tahini smear on his pita. Crudup is not bothered. As the network executive Cory Ellison, he waltzes through the series like an imperturbable demon cherub, reacting to workplace disasters as if they’re juicy Twitter spats. He’s a delighted schemer, so contagiously overconfident that when he blows hard about woke Twitter and Americans’ need for entertainment, not news, he’s buoyant. Even when he’s wrong, he floats! And he is not wrong about the falafel. “I read about it on Eater!” he proclaims.

When I heard this line, I cocked my head sideways, like dogs do when they hear a strange noise. The conventions of TV dictate that dialogue serves a purpose, but what purpose does this passing reference serve, and was it worth the entire show going on location with a New York City food cart? None of the possible answers seems sufficient: He’s the kind of guy who reads the internet? who likes to be in the know? who really relishes saying the word Eater? The line triggers the ear, registering as a something, but it’s a nothing. The Morning Show’s communiqué is coming in loud and fuzzy.

In a moment when so much TV is numbingly competent, The Morning Show is bracingly so. It’s competent by the skin of its teeth, the quick of a fingernail, Crudup’s maniacal smile, the roving part in Reese Witherspoon’s bad—but improved over the course of the season!—wig. I binged it in a state of giggly frenzy, each episode another Mento dropped into the soda bottle that was me, fizzing wildly, liable to spray anyone who came too close. Look, I said—out loud! I’ve been babbling about this show like I dreamed about it last night—it’s like a tightrope act where you think they’re going to fall, but they don’t! It’s a train that looks like it’s about to derail the whole time, but it doesn’t! It’s the Jennifer Aniston–dissecting–“Jennifer Aniston” event program I kind of knew I was waiting for! It’s as metatextually fascinating as it is intratextually uneven, a $300 million experiment in which all of the seams are showing, and it almost makes it fashion. It’s not great, but oh, God, is it interesting. It’s not perfect, but oh, Lord, is it watchable. It’s not very good, but hurry up, sit by me, it’s starting.

In the two years leading up to its release, The Morning Show was widely gossiped about as an epic disaster. Apple TV+ was rich but clueless, and production was a mess. In late November 2017, just weeks after outbidding all comers for a series starring Aniston, Witherspoon, and Steve Carell and based on Brian Stelter’s book about the Today show, Matt Lauer was fired for inappropriate sexual behavior. So the series changed course and showrunners and was reborn as a #MeToo parable. As The Morning Show begins, longtime co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Carell) has been fired for sexual misconduct, leaving his co-host Alex Levy (Aniston) in a precarious yet powerful position, which she impulsively uses to name Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), a journeyman news journalist with an attitude problem, as her new on-air partner.

It’s a compact premise that belies the show’s unruly largesse, a too-muchness that makes it almost shaggy, despite the pristine antisepticness of its visual detailing, the brightly lit studio sets, hotel rooms, and penthouse fortresses. The show gestures at a great big, ridiculous world where everyone has an agenda and a story, but not necessarily any screen time. There are assistants and producers who show up over and over again without getting more than a few lines. There’s The Morning Show’s weekend anchor, a black gay man who should be in the running for the co-anchor spot but can’t get anyone to give him more than lip service. There’s a young assistant having a love affair with the weatherman, who worries he’s abusing his power, even as she scoffs at the suggestion. There are reporters at the Times trying to break more stories about this toxic workplace and a powerful journalist at New York magazine (Marcia Gay Harden, playing a version of Rebecca Traister) trying to do the same. There are powerful men at every level desperate to hang on to their jobs: The Morning Show’s pathetic producer (a horribly miscast and smarmy Mark Duplass), Crudup’s Cory Ellison, and their nefarious boss Fred (Tom Irwin).

And that’s the straight-faced stuff! The series’s chaotic beginnings give the whole thing an ad hoc vibe. Characters who were written one way in early episodes become something else in later ones. The writers seem to be sorting out what they think about their #MeToo story—and so the plot—on the fly, a fumbling that at least has the virtue of verisimilitude. Every episode contains at least one overwrought, hot air–filled monologue, and then there’s everything else: implausible viral videos, Kelly Clarkson appearances, a Sondheim number, tragic news events used as window dressing, and a character named—it’s worth harping on—Bradley Jackson.

The name Bradley Jackson is silly enough on its own, but achieves a state of overdetermined nirvana when you realize the character playing across from Jennifer Aniston, in a show she executive produces, is named: Brad. BRAD! So much of the power of The Morning Show comes from it being a prime piece of Anistonology, a field of study as full of personas, mythologies, and Easter eggs as any superhero saga. In the decades since Aniston played Rachel Green on Friends, she has intermittently tried to prove her acting chops and send up her public image in a string of roles that have not made a dent in the primacy of Jen, our down-to-earth, approachable, woebegone, babyless, husband-seeking pal, familiar from reruns and tabloids, where she is still, to this day, rumored to be remarrying her ex-husband. Alex Levy is an emphatic, impassioned rejoinder to all of this.

Like Aniston, Alex is a beloved and cozy public figure that Americans feel overly familiar with. But underneath her cheery façade, Alex is prickly, overwhelmed, impulsive, strategic, furious, and lonely. She’s not Aniston, but the details don’t matter: She’s a woman everyone thinks they know, but they have no idea. The Morning Show is a two-hander by any empirical measure, but Witherspoon recedes into the background even as she keeps her screen time. She’s gamely playing a part—a quintessentially good-hearted, plucky, and high-strung Reese Witherspoon character—but it’s just a part. Aniston is singing her heart out (in one scene, literally) in this opera of her experience, feasting like she’s never had a meal, cursing like there’s an off chance she might be able to F-bomb her way out of being America’s Sweetheart.

Aniston DGAF about likability in this role; she’s ready to rip it up, stomp on it, and throw it in the toilet, which isn’t to say she is not intermittently very likable. Much of this is a credit to Aniston’s performance, the way she conveys Alex’s intense loneliness by bringing forward and holding back different pieces of herself with everyone she knows—her public, the press, her colleagues, her estranged husband, her daughter—except for her now-disgraced co-anchor, the only person intimately familiar with her grueling isolation. But anyone familiar with her story can recognize her gung-ho embrace of this role as an escape attempt: Let her out of the box! There’s so much will in this performance, so much mighty vim, and it all comes from Aniston’s gameness to do whatever is required—and to do it, mostly, very well. She’ll shoot daggers at hair and makeup, curse out her teenager, cry, panic, puke, lose her cool, jockey, scheme, manipulate, backstab. She’ll even play the enabler of a sex pest.

What Alex knew and when she knew it is one of The Morning Show’s central mysteries—second only to what Mitch did, who covered it up, and who leaked it. In the early episodes, Mitch’s misbehavior is left vague. It gives the show time to paint in all the grays, to hear from the colleagues who found him to be a funny, good-time flirt, the ones who had unregretted sexual encounters with him; to make a distinction between him and more Cosby-esque predators. Mitch is a self-pitying, unreflective egomaniac who thinks he’s just unlucky to be part of the first generation of powerful men to be held accountable for using their power for sex. But holding back the details of his misbehavior feels like a play for time, a way for the show to figure out how bad he should be, while keeping that bad behavior from breaking the series, making audiences wonder: Why are we devoting all this screen time to a supercreep?

A similar calculation is going on with Alex. Though Aniston is down to do whatever unbecoming thing is asked of her, the show itself seems intermittently panicked about how far it can go in villainizing her. It’s like a triple-exposure ballet, where it’s not just Alex Levy in a pas de deux with “Jennifer Aniston”; it’s the show itself, weighing just how dark it can make her and still deliver on the promise of a Jennifer Aniston TV show. By the time The Morning Show commits more fully to Alex’s immorality, it has an escape plan at the ready. Aniston may be desperate to get out of the likability box, but the show has another box ready for her, though it is, at least, a much more expansive one.

Before signing off to go rewatch a few episodes of The Morning Show, permit me a tangent. One of the pleasures of sentience is the way that life is constantly creating harmonies, making this rhyme with that, here chime with there, one book resonate with another that it has no connection to except the order in which you read them. As I was rolling around in The Morning Show, Martin Scorsese wrote an op-ed clarifying his position on superhero movies, opening another round in the ongoing parlor game where journalists have to ask every person involved in the entertainment business to please give them web traffic by opining on the value of superhero movies. There’s a lot to say about all of this—but what on earth is any of it doing in a review of The Morning Show? Here’s how this rhymes with that: We’ve forgotten how to have bad taste with dignity, with humility, with any sense of proportion.

Bad taste, like a bellybutton, is something everyone has. To be human is to love unwisely but too well, to be thrilled, satisfied by the middling thing that hits the spot, whether it’s a movie or a partner. It’s bad taste, fine taste, whatever taste, not good taste, that makes us singular, particular, human. (Who only loves good things? It’s too boring to contemplate!) While we could hardly be accused of living in an era of good taste, we are living in a moment where we have elevated bad taste to the point that it no longer functions with any self-effacement. Bad taste no longer knows that it’s not that good.

No one should feel bad about the things they love or feel guilty about their pleasures, wherever they find them—but I do think we should try to remain aware that personal pleasure is not an exact equivalent to quality. Love what you love, but try to see it clear. The Morning Show, a series starring two women and set in the world of morning news, is likely to have a largely female audience—and we’re the ones who are always overapologizing for the things that we like anyway. So many excellent shows have been trivialized because they seemed to be for women, set in women’s worlds. I’m not apologizing or trivializing when I say that while I delighted in The Morning Show, which is sociologically and narratively fascinating, has, in Aniston and Crudup, two gonzo performances, and is more fun than I’ve had in front of a screen in a long time, it also lacks the kind of purposefulness, control, and self-knowledge that makes something great. Its weaknesses are part of the good time, but that still doesn’t make them strengths. Pass it on.