When did television travel through the looking glass? The simple answer would be when streaming hit, as the great tech disruptors combined a cavalier attitude toward content creation with obscene sums of money. Where once golden age programs would live and die based on ratings, reviews, and awards — “Mad Men,” for instance, thrived for seven seasons despite never cresting 3 million viewers, thanks to writers’ infatuation and dozens of little gold men — now, those benchmarks are virtually meaningless. No one can succinctly define a hit show, let alone agree on aggregate critical appraisal or the value of all those trophies.
“The Morning Show,” Apple’s inaugural drama with dreams of across-the-board success, embodies the culture shift with its infamous and/or trademark omniscience. Incredible public relations work (and a few critical allies) shifted the initial assessment from mediocre mess to an Emmy-worthy late-bloomer. Ratings were kept under wraps (a policy Apple TV+ still strictly follows), and from the rubble of a decidedly not-good first season, the streamer pulled out a win. Season 2, well, seconds seasons are hard — they’re hard to make, but they’re also hard to spin. Once audiences have seen 20 hours of a TV show, opinions are not only less pliable, they’re stronger. Louder. Adamant. “The Morning Show” fell off the proverbial cliff in its second season. No amount of retooling would change what it was: at best, a misguided soap, and at worst, knock-off Aaron Sorkin.
And yet, here we are. “The Morning Show” Season 3 is out. Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon are still the leads. Production values remain high. Coherence remains low, but that’s almost beside the point: This isn’t supposed to happen. We’re living in the age of cancellations, canceled renewals, and widespread culling. Prestige flops don’t get third seasons. They’re gracefully put out to pasture when it’s clear things aren’t going to improve; when the players involved aren’t going to gain anything from continuing, be it acclaim or audience share; when their talents are better put toward something new, something of value, something that could still succeed. Technically, we don’t know how many people are watching “The Morning Show,” but it’s yet to crack Nielsen’s Top 10 and recent reports raise questions about Apple’s overall subscriber base. So why is there not only a third season, but also a fourth already given the green light?
Readers, my dear readers, I have no answers for you. I have even fewer answers than I expected after consuming all 10 episodes of “The Morning Show” Season 3. More or less the same show it’s always been, Season 3 piles lunacy on top of utter lunacy as each hour ticks by. My notes are filled with question marks and exclamation points, all CAPS admonishments and verbatim quotes that still require translation. IndieWire’s Slack channels are littered with spiral-inducing plot points and mouth-agape emojis — a state of disrepair I am primarily responsible for and deserving of whatever retribution my colleagues deem just.
“The Morning Show” is bad. It’s still bad. It’s always been bad. And yet, I must admit: I am transfixed.
Those who skimmed my Season 2 review may be surprised, but survivors of Season 2 itself will likely understand. “The Morning Show” has plenty going for it: an enviable cast and crew, the crisp aesthetics of an Apple store, and a willingness to tackle big topics well beyond its narrow expertise. Season 1 stumbled through #MeToo before Season 2 face-planted on “cancel culture.” Season 3 avoids such sweeping commentary, choosing instead to focus on mini arcs: an episode on the War in Ukraine, another on overturning Roe v. Wade, and one unfit midseason flashback to encompass the exhaustively covered (and plain ol’ exhausting) events of 2020.
But it does center billionaires and broadcast news. “The Morning Show” loves predicting the demise of network television — someone drops the axe every season, which is both ho-hum in its familiarity (the declining relevancy of CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC are routine conversation topics in Hollywood) and hilarious in context. (Apple TV+ may very well have fewer domestic subscribers than “NCIS” has weekly viewers, but sure, keep taking pot shots at the competition.) This year, though, they introduce a potential savior: Paul Marks (Jon Hamm), a tech billionaire who’s primary focus is space travel, but who’s open to buying a TV network, because why not? Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) wants him because the UBA exec’s pet project — a streaming service called UBA+ (what else?) — is “drowning” its parent company in debt, and he thinks the only way to survive the next decade is by clinging to a leader with really deep pockets.
As the rich white men fluff each other’s egos and barter over deal points, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) — the ostensible stars of “The Morning Show” — have their own problems. Alex feels unappreciated. She isn’t part of UBA’s Morning Show anymore, instead hosting her own interview series for the debt-ridden streaming service, and that — in addition to her years of service alongside the late sexual predator Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) — entitles her to a seat at the table. A board seat, to be precise, meaning she wants real power. She wants to change the culture. She wants a bigger, fatter paycheck, with sides of equality and equity for those under her. “What you’re asking for is unprecedented,” Cory says. “I am unprecedented,” Alex responds.
There’s no arguing with that! Soon, her conflation of fairness and fortunes will lead her into Paul Marks’ orbit, though not before he literally goes into orbit himself. (Enjoy Episode 1’s eye-rolling cliffhanger.) Bradley, meanwhile, is hosting the evening news. She’s got her dream gig, and what scares her is losing it. You see, Bradley has a secret, and that secret is getting under her skin. She slurs her way through an acceptance speech at the American Alliance of Journalists Awards. She stares, dumbfounded, at an ad with the word “Truth” plastered under her face. She misses her now ex-girlfriend, Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies), for reasons that will be explained in the shudder-worthy 2020 flashback episode.
All of this will make sense soon enough, but let me just say, Bradley’s big revelation is outrageous. So outrageous, in fact, that its inscrutable teasing for half the season only makes its disclosure more upsetting. Even if “The Morning Show” spelled out what was coming, it wouldn’t make any more sense, and instead, the show insists on snippets of clues so truncated and opaque, there’s no way of telling how they could pay off.
This leads to what may be “The Morning Show’s” greatest sin: It’s all set-up and no pay off; it thrives in the unknown. Batshit choices are juxtaposed against historical events in a way that makes every second feel charged with possibility. With real-life events lending unearned weight to unhinged creative choices, those sparks start to feel like fire — there are just so many of them, so casually tossed toward the kindling, that it’s easy to believe things are heating up. But when they burn out without any actual flames, the coldness seeps in quick. One scene sees Alex staring blankly into the refrigerator, and when asked what’s going on, there’s a pregnant pause, before Aniston says, “I’m just thinking about the wildfires in California.” Truly anything could’ve come out of her mouth in that moment. Her prospective words run the gamut from “I’m just thinking about what to have for breakfast” to “I’m just remembering when my daughter got trapped in here and had to eat her own foot.”
Anything can be said or done at any time in “The Morning Show,” which makes it easy to get sucked in. Watching is a rollercoaster of fleeting delight and persistent embarrassment. Beyond Bradley’s head-scratching secret, there’s a love triangle with clear corners but indistinguishable connections; there’s a cyber attack in Episode 3 that’s still unresolved (if not flat-out forgotten) by the finale; there’s a closing shot so oblivious to its implications, you just have to laugh. But worst of all, they cast Jon Hamm as a cross between Richard Branson and Elon Musk but refuse to let one of our greatest weirdo actors step outside his boring businessman suit? Come on, people! These are easy wins! They’re sitting right there! Take them, they’re yours!
Alas, they can’t see them, or choose not to look. It’s all as transfixing as a train wreck — and just as fulfilling. Spiritual sister-series “And Just Like That” mixes nostalgia with madness to keep audiences coming back, just as “The Morning Show” cuts its chaos with star power to attract a certain kind of gawking attention. (In addition to Hamm joining and Margulies returning, Tig Notaro, Nicole Behari, June Diane Raphael, and Mindy Kaling all appear in Season 3 — plus a brief return of one Emmy-nominated former regular). Still, each of these stars has done far better work elsewhere. “The Morning Show” may not be the nadir of their artistic lives, but it’s scraping the bottom. That it’s still watchable is a testament as much to the reputations they established elsewhere as it is to the creative team’s ability to engineer consistent bursts of confounding melodrama.
“The Morning Show” Season 3 shouldn’t exist. There are a million reasons why, and yet… I’m both glad it does and terrified of what that means for television. Is this what networks and streamers want? Is this worth all that endless Apple money? How did we get here? Where do we go next? Perhaps the former answer lies somewhere within “The Morning Show’s” evolution, between the streaming boom and the great retraction. But for a show that can only look backward, the future will always be an enigma. Maybe by centering a wayward billionaire and foundering TV network, “TMS” is trying to acknowledge its own ineptitude; to savor the soapy delights money affords, and admit that a pocketbook is all it has to offer. If so, I hope they bring Jon Hamm back next season. At least he knows what the money is for.
“The Morning Show” Season 3 premieres Wednesday, September 13 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly. Season 4 has already been renewed.