The series hasn’t necessarily gotten better, but after six episodes it’s gotten wilder, contradictory, and intriguing – the unstinting budget (about $22 million an hour) is a constant, but the tone fluctuates and the surprises, for better or worse, are extremely watchable. “Anything can happen,” gleefully declares Crudup’s just installed head of the network news division, a disruptor working inside the system, “especially when it’s burning down.” He’s alluding to the fictional show, but the sentiment applies equally to the real one.
Morning Wars’ antecedents includes the movie Broadcast News and the earnest superiority of Aaron Sorkin’s many series, but it is cynical about the world of network television. Aniston’s Alex Levy, the celebrated co-anchor of The Morning Show tells her new on-air partner, Witherspoon’s scrappy upstart Bradley Jackson, that their job is to act like best friends for two hours a day. It’s one of many scenes, laced with take it or leave it disdain, that you could readily imagine occurring at Australia’s real life equivalents such as Sunrise and Today.
The story’s instigating incident, the firing of Alex’s friend and long-time co-anchor, Carell’s Mitch Kessler, for sexual misconduct involving female staff members, has unfolded in unexpected ways. Mitch’s affairs were consensual, but the power dynamic was crushing and some of the women blew the whistle anonymously. Casting Carell makes Mitch awkward and sympathetic, but it also allows for an examination of the unavoidably genuine scenario of a privileged man who is baffled and angry about his downfall and plots his comeback.
The #MeToo movement is often referenced on Morning Wars, but the true ramifications have an uncomfortable intimacy. Alex and Mitch retain their connection, and even as Bradley interviews on air a former staffer who felt compelled to accede to Mitch, the question of who knew what he was doing and looked the other way ticks away like a bomb that can’t be defused. Characters such as Duplass’ frazzled executive producer, Charlie Black, have a darker hue than their outline initially suggests.
More than halfway through the first season, with a second on the way, Morning Wars is looking at how power is held and transferred, often in unorthodox ways. Mitch cannot accept how he has lost his, but Alex is emboldened to take more. Brought before network executives for a dressing down, complete with point of view shots lining up the stern suits, she coolly asserts her authority, telling them she has the control and will exercise it as she wants.
It’s a bracing performance, and one of the most complex that Aniston has given. Witherspoon’s defiant dedication is a staple of her career, complete with flashes of romantic-comedy messiness, but Aniston is playing a woman who uses roles – including that of the happily married wife – to leverage her position. “I’m already on thin ice with America,” Alex tells her aggrieved husband at one point, suggesting both hubris and achievement. That makes sense on Morning Wars: it’s a show about the temptation of speaking power to the truth.