© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Morning Show' recap, Season 2, Episode 3, featuring kissing and lying

Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) and Laura (Julianna Margulies) do some talking at the Iowa caucuses.
Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) and Laura (Julianna Margulies) do some talking at the Iowa caucuses.

It's never clear exactly what the stakes are supposed to be on The Morning Show. Are we supposed to be invested in the two women at the center of the action, Bradley and Alex, finding their way forward together and forging some kind of professional trust? Are we supposed to be invested in each of them, individually, finding her own ethical North Star? Are we supposed to care who succeeds and fails among the on-air talent? Are things like Alex's new office supposed to be juicy details about how the media really operates? Am I supposed to be thinking about the plight of poor Mitch, isolated on Lake Como, drowning in money but sometimes faced with consequences of his actions?

Because right now, this show looks and behaves like a good show in certain ways, but it is not actually a good show. Pretty and glamorous, yes. It is well-lit! It is beautifully costumed! It is impeccably designed! But as a story, it is ... well-lit. This episode feels like table-setting for episodes that are yet to come, but (so?) there's a lack of momentum and tension about the events that are actually unfolding.

Bradley, Alex, Laura, and the big ego dance

The basics are these: Bradley and Alex are about to try to recapture their legendary three-week run as co-hosts. This means that the network is revving up a huge promotional push that includes prime-time interviews with both, conducted by one of its other journalists, a woman named Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies).

Alex has to participate in that interview while also protecting her flank from the approach of Maggie's tell-all book; Bradley has to participate in it while also trying to burnish her own career, covering the Iowa caucuses and telling Cory she wants to moderate an upcoming presidential debate so people will take her seriously. Chip is back as Alex's producer, and Daniel is sweating out (fortunately not literally) some time in Beijing after narrowly escaping Wuhan, which is now in lockdown because of the arrival of a virus with which you may be familiar.

Alex (Jennifer Aniston) and Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) are still trying to work out their return.
/ Apple TV+
Alex (Jennifer Aniston) and Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) are still trying to work out their return.

I am begging this show: Less of the stuff like Alex waiting out Laura at the interview, trying not to go out of her dressing room area first. There's a reason people call petty power moves petty! They are petty, in that they are trivial, in that they are not compelling, in that they lack meaning unless they are imbued with it from elsewhere! Even if they are true to life, they are not interesting. We already know Alex is a spoiled celebrity; this does not offer new information.

Sad Mitch, of whom it's safe to say we just cannot see enough

Meanwhile, Poor Mitch continues to wallow in his newly minted perfect self-awareness and the company of his new friend Paola, who wants him to participate in a documentary she's making about sexual assault. She's sort of also trying to be his friend and maybe date him, so that's certainly going to be a very reliable documentary vis-à-vis its treatment of Mitch.

Elsewhere in the great big world of ethical compromises, Alex freaks out when one of Laura's questions seems to carry an implication that perhaps she slept with Mitch at some point (reminder: she ... did). So Chip re-edits the footage of Alex's stammering and evasive response so that it doesn't look as incriminating (tired: lying for Mitch; wired: lying for Alex). Still, it's hard for Alex not to worry about where, exactly, Laura got that question, particularly because Laura has an excerpt from Maggie's upcoming book.

Making out! There's some new making out!

Laura is also spending some time in Iowa with Bradley (where the latter is covering the caucuses and seems to be terrible at it, from the little bit we see) for this promotional special. Cory asks Laura to do him a favor and maybe mentor Bradley a little, so perhaps in this world, it's not a big surprise that Bradley and Laura, who begin with a professional conversation, wind up making out in the back of a car.

Look, I'm as happy as anyone to see hot people make out with each other, and I'm even willing to overlook the fact that I sense a little bit of late-nineties-era "look, it's two women who are famous as heterosexual leading ladies, kissing" sensationalism to this bit, especially since it's the very first episode in which Laura is introduced. And it's not as if this mentorship request involved a grizzled veteran and a youngster just out of school: Margulies has about ten years on Witherspoon, and they're ten not particularly important years once everybody is over 40.

But nevertheless, this began as a professional thing, and as a professional thing in which mentoring was requested, and Laura was there as a journalist who was interviewing Bradley. Must we have an established female journalist sleep with her interviewee again? Really? No less a journalist than the great and good Audie Cornish has taught us that pop culture storytelling in which women journalists sleep with sources — and someone you're supposed to be interviewing does qualify, even if it's an internal puff piece — are tiresome. Another way to look at it: Laura is obviously trying to hold Alex's feet to the fire a little, so is it fair for her to be making out with Bradley?

I stand with Stella's face. (Greta Lee, Billy Crudup)
/ Apple TV+
I stand with Stella's face. (Greta Lee, Billy Crudup)

Does everything have to be gross?

I am extremely here for a romance between Bradley and Laura, let me be clear. But did this have to be the way this started? Does everything that happens on this show have to be ... you know, gross? Alex covering up her relationship with Mitch, Chip helping her, Laura making out with her mentee/subject, Mitch being pure of heart all of a sudden ... and most concerning, are all the things these people do supposed to be gross (or at least gross-adjacent), or is it supposed to just be one of those It's Complicated situations? You can certainly make a show where everybody is terrible, but you have to know that about it as you're writing and casting and directing it, like Succession does. This, on the other hand, is a show where everybody is gross, but all the actors are ones who trade on your ability to like them.

Think about the actors who play the family on Succession: Jeremy Strong, Brian Cox, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Alan Ruck ... whatever you can say about those people, they're not trying to play those characters America's-Sweetheart-style. They're going to have to work hard to ever play anybody who's not a monstrous stain on humanity again. But then think about Aniston, Witherspoon, Carell, Margulies ... all of those people have pasts as "beloved" actors (which is not to say they haven't done other things and sometimes done them well, so don't email me, Tracy Flick). The show leans on their likability to protect the characters they're playing. There's an unwillingness to let practically all these characters be what they really are, which is mundanely disappointing rich and powerful people. Not villains, not dastardly monsters, just the kind of careless, oblivious, money-poached dodos who make the world a little bit worse.

And what's aggravating is that there are more interesting stories bubbling around the edges, but they feel like afterthoughts. Daniel's frustration about both his role on the show and the show's underplaying of early COVID is intriguing, and Mia's conflicted sense that she's supposed to be responsible for Daniel's career — that she's not allowed to just think about ambition and her own job the way everybody else does — is a very promising story direction and one that has resonances in environments other than media. But this is never going to be a show about Mia, or about Daniel, and everybody knows it.

Over and over, the show is sort of noncommittal about its central figures, not in the way that suggests nuance, but in the way that suggests a muddy quasi-moral point of view that's not fully thought through. But at least in addition to reliving COVID, we get to relive the most recent presidential election. Wheee!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.