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Morning television is ripe for drama — but 'The Morning Show' feels behind the times

Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston star as co-anchors on Apple TV 's 'The Morning Show.'
Apple TV
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston star as co-anchors on Apple TV 's 'The Morning Show.'

(Breaking news: This analysis contains spoilers from the season finale of Apple TV+'s The Morning Show.)

It's the biggest question I have left about Apple TV's The Morning Show, as a critic who has now watched two seasons of the program:

Why does this program always feel about two steps behind the times?

The first season was an extended dramatization of a Matt Lauer-style #metoo scandal, which debuted about two years after Lauer was firedby NBC's Today show in real life after receiving a complaint about "inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace." The current season has used last year's emergence of the pandemic as a backdrop, telling a story that includes its Lauer avatar – played by a mopey, philosophical Steve Carell – killing himself in a car crash.

Launched the same day Apple TV+ debuted in 2019, The Morning Show was supposed to be star-studded evidence that Apple was a player in the original scripted series streaming game. Featuring Carell and Jennifer Aniston as fictional Lauer and Katie Couric-style anchors on a morning show for the UBA network – with Reese Witherspoon as the newbie anchor hired when Carrell's character is fired – the series has never quite managed to work up a storytelling firepower that matches its superstar cast.

The Morning Show doesn't look like real morning shows

But another reason this series feels so out-of-step to me — someone who watches the broadcast networks' morning shows practically every weekday – is because of who The Morning Show features as top anchors on its fictional program.

For most of series' two seasons, the top anchors have been white people. And that is markedly different than the real-life network TV morning shows this program is supposed to be based on.

Desean Terry and Karen Pittman on 'The Morning Show.'
/ Apple TV
Apple TV
Desean Terry and Karen Pittman on 'The Morning Show.'

Indeed, a pivotal scene in Friday's season finale features a Black weekend anchor, Desean Terry's Daniel Henderson, finally getting fed up at being overlooked for a main anchor slot. The show's top anchors, played by Aniston and Witherspoon, are sidelined and the network's head of news asks him to take over the main show.

But instead of stepping up, Daniel steps out – he quits. And when the program's Black executive producer literally begs him to come back, Daniel refuses, saying, if he returns, "I'll keep languishing, waiting for a seat at the table, when I can make a table of my own."

Huh? He is offered the job he's been whining about not getting for nearly two seasons, and he turns it down?

The producer who calls Daniel, Karen Pittman's Mia Jordan, tells him Black people always have to deal with disappointments in the workplace. "We can keep pushing...tomorrow will come, someday." But in the real world, tomorrow has already arrived.

Look at ABC, and you see two Black anchors, Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts, sitting alongside George Stephanopoulos. At NBC, African American anchors Al Roker, Craig Melvin and Sheinelle Jones work alongside Hoda Kotb, a daughter of Egyptian immigrants and Savannah Guthrie, who is white. On CBS, Gayle King and Nate Burleson, who are both Black, form two-thirds of the show's main anchor team, with Tony Dokoupil, who is white.

And how did some of these anchors of color ascend to the top? By taking over when their white colleagues got sidelined.

The #metoo-related firing of Lauer at NBC and Charlie Rose on CBS helped make room for the ascension of Hoda Kotb, Craig Melvin and Gayle King — a triumph of diversity by necessity. That's also how Lester Holt made history as the first African American to be sole lead news anchor at a broadcast network, taking over the NBC Nightly News after the fall of Brian Williams.

In the television business, possession of the anchor seat is a powerful thing. Why would someone in Daniel's position would simply walk away from that opportunity because the network was essentially forced to give it him? Especially since that's how many anchors have advanced their careers.

Forget about the lack of logic. It is beyond odd to see a fictional morning show which has more diversity issues than the real-life network TV shows it is based on. Even when The Morning Show added a third female anchor character for this season — a woman who briefly becomes co-anchor and lover to Bradley — they cast Julianna Margulies, adding another white actor to an already white-centric core cast.

And let's not overlook how they cast South Asian comic and actor Hasan Minhaj perfectly as co-host to Reese Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson at the start of this season, then promptly "promoted" the character to anchor UBA's evening news, ushering him out of the series' main storylines.

That bizarre bit of musical chairs displayed a cluelessness about race which helps explain why The Morning Show often feels a bit outdated.

A complex soap opera with muddled storytelling

As is often the case with other shows, the oversights and missed opportunities here regarding characters of color are just symptoms of a larger storytelling problem. The series seems more interested in giving its stars showy scenes than making sure those moments add up to a greater story.

The Morning Show is a sophisticated soap opera which also strains to be About Something, even when it's not clear exactly what that something is. Is it a meditation on the widespread complicity that occurs when sexual harassment occurs in a high-powered workplace? A dramatization of how tough it is to draw a line between harassment and consensual relations in the modern office?

Or, perhaps, just a celebrity-packed excuse to watch A-list actors yell at each other?

Steve Carell on 'The Morning Show.'
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Steve Carell on 'The Morning Show.'

One of The Morning Show's obvious problems, was that it didn't seem to figure out exactly what it wanted to say about Carell's character Mitch Kessler. Particularly, how Kessler allowed his workplace womanizing to elevate into a sexual assault against a producer who eventually, apparently, killed herself.

It has had two seasons to thread this needle, vacillating between humanizing Kessler for much of this season and reminding us of the awful things he did (including an allegation he targeted Black women in his harassment), enabled by other UBA executives and Aniston's character.

Last season, one of the show's most prominent non-white characters, Gugu Mbatha-Raw's morning show producer Hannah Shoenfeld, was revealed to be the staffer who Kessler assaulted. (Shoenfeld's name alone sounds like they may not exactly have had a non-white actress in mind when they wrote the role.)

When pressed to recount her experience in a TV interview, Shoenfeld overdosed and died, becoming a convenient martyr. In one clumsy plot twist, her role was transformed from a woefully underutilized character of color to a noble victim whose sacrifice helps expose the hypocrisy of the network. Ugh.

This season, the show has given some juicy scenes to Pittman's Mia Jordan, who also once had an affair with Kessler. In particular, when she must write a script reporting that Kessler has died, Mia has an emotional moment where she veers from horror at his death to anger and more.

But quality scenes like those are fleeting on The Morning Show, which hands great gobs of story to Aniston, Witherspoon, Margulies and Marcia Gay Harden, playing a journalist who has written a tell-all book about Kessler, Levy and UBA's scandals.

To feed the drama, these characters – particularly Carell and Aniston's – whiplash between outrageously selfish acts that make them look like terrible human beings and other actions that redeem them. Including Levy's decision in the second season finale to host a TV show while suffering from COVID – ostensibly to help viewers understand the exploding pandemic – only to spend most of the time talking about herself.

Dramatizing what is actually happening in morning TV right now – where former athletes like Strahan and Burleson are taking top anchor jobs, adding diversity while displacing more traditional broadcasters – would probably be more interesting than whatever it is The Morning Show is doing right now.

If The Morning Show films a third season, I hope producers focus on a storyline that feels more in tune with the issues facing morning television – and us all — right now.

Because this series has too great a cast, with too many resources, to spend it telling stories that feel ripped from last year's headlines.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.