The second-season premiere of The Morning Show threatened to become a document of the garbage-fire year that was 2020, teasing the dread-inducing arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic with a couple of lazy references that never failed to remind the audience that this story everyone was shrugging off was soon going to become very important indeed. Maybe you’re a hopeful person and you figure that maybe the show would get there gradually or handle it with grace and nuance. Perhaps the only good news about the second episode of the new season is that the pandemic hovers on the periphery of the story, in spite of the episode being called “It’s Like the Flu”. Talk about another hilarious reference to a global pandemic that definitely is funny and not at all tasteless!
But that’s par for the course for a show that is quickly reclaiming its title of being the Most Compelling And Awful Show on Television. With the exception of just one of the UBA anchors, Daniel Henderson (DeSean Terry), rightly noting the severity of the novel coronavirus and that someone from the network should be covering it, everyone else shrugs it off in the winter doldrums of 2020. That is, except Daniel himself, who ends up being tasked with covering the virus and ends the episode on a flight to China. Aside from that, “It’s Like the Flu” comforts itself with focusing more and more on the trivially dumb complaints of to-be-reunited anchors Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). When UBA executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) informs Bradley as soon as the New Year’s Eve event closes that Alex is being brought back to The Morning Show, Bradley does what she does best: make it all about herself and how she’s been victimized.
Something this episode emphasizes — and not in its benefit, unfortunately — is exactly how much time Alex and Bradley spent as co-anchors on The Morning Show initially. Three weeks. Three! That’s it! The amount of yelling and backbiting, of double-crossing and conniving in this wannabe All About Eve story is in reference to three weeks’ worth of co-anchoring, a number so low that it would be funnier if this show realized how stupidly small it was. Alas. Bradley takes the news about Alex so poorly that she decides to call out sick for the better part of January 2020, all while Cory and his lieutenant Stella (Greta Lee) try to iron out the details of Alex’s new and very expensive contract.
While he’s handling this, Cory is also trying to navigate the fallout of the wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of Hannah Shoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who died of an overdose last season but whose presence is clearly not going away. At first, with the negative press surrounding Bradley’s disappearance, Cory exhorts members of the network’s legal team to pay Hannah’s family whatever they want, simply to resolve the situation, which is making the rounds on The View-like talk shows. And Cory’s equally quick to fire one of the members of that legal team after he callously points out that whether or not Hannah’s family is under a non-disclosure agreement, no one has to worry about Hannah herself talking again.
Of course, if you have a long enough memory, you may recall that Hannah’s emotional turmoil was truly set in motion by the fallen anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), whose sexual-assault allegations were what set most of the first season’s events in motion. The opening credits give it away, but Carell (absent for the premiere) returns here as we find Mitch alone and feeling sorry for himself in a massive oceanside Italian villa. Would that we could all be so downtrodden and mopey. Mitch spends his days in solitude, actively ignoring calls from ex-executive Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin) and hoping to avoid notice while in town. One day, though, a strident young American woman recognizes Mitch (in spite of his beard and black baseball cap), and begins chewing him out for his various awfulness and indiscretions. Mitch shrewdly speaks quietly and simply tries to encourage the woman to lower her voice, but she continues to yell at him, garnering attention from onlookers, including a local woman around Mitch’s age who instantly leaps to the man’s defense, even as she knows him and why he’s in the news. The woman, Paola (Valeria Golino), notes that the American is being filmed by a friend, likely to ride a wave of social-media attention.
At first, Mitch is mostly just happy to be free of the obnoxious young woman — this being a faux-Aaron Sorkin-esque drama, the script is basically siding with Mitch here (even though we have very little reason based on last season to presume that he’s actually a nice guy, aside from the weaponized casting of well-known nice guy Steve Carell). But Mitch soon finds that Paola wants to pick his brain about…y’know, stuff. She all but strong-arms him into giving her his phone number, with the possibility of getting to talk with him one-on-one. But the episode leaves Mitch at his doorstep, as he’s angry and shocked to be visited by Fred, whose offer of a bottle of wine is immediately thrown by Mitch to the ground (literally — be careful of walking around the shards of glass in your foyer, Mitch). Mitch hisses that he was paid $119.2 million to go away, and he simply wants to move on entirely. You may think, by the way, that number seems awfully specific to throw around, but it’s helpful to keep that in our mental back pocket, since near the episode’s close, we hear it again: it’s the exact number that Hannah’s family wants to settle for, which gives Cory back in New York a great deal of pause.
Cory already has enough balls in the air — the first two episodes are really emphasizing Crudup’s daffy and outsized performance, which is largely fine (he was the best part of the first season and remains the most enjoyable part of this season so far) but an interesting choice to move a bit away from a female-driven storyline. He’s trying to ensure that Alex doesn’t screw the pooch by revealing her return before an all-out PR blitz, which is exacerbated when she and her agent Doug (Will Arnett) arrive at the office and try to gauge the temperature for Alex’s eventual prime-time show. Arnett is now the second enormously talented actor who’s as well-known for voice work as for live-action work to stand next to Aniston in two straight episodes. First, it was James Urbaniak in the premiere (you may know him as Dr. Venture from The Venture Bros.), and now we have BoJack Horseman himself, a character I choose to believe is referenced when Doug uses the phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” because…well, he voiced a horse. (A horseman.)
I digress. The upshot is that Alex is encouraged to make peace with Bradley at an upcoming intimate dinner at Cory’s upscale hotel-room-cum-condo that spirals into a larger event at which all of the UBA morning-time personalities are invited. Here, Daniel confronts Alex for reneging on her promise to help him raise his profile at UBA, instead backing Bradley near the end of the first season. That’s before Bradley returns to shout her way through the dinner and at Alex, for having abandoned her at the network (remember, the opening scene of the premiere has them saying they’re going to work tightly together in the aftermath of spilling the tea about UBA’s toxic work environment on live television). Alex, frazzled and faux-innocent as she is, wisely points out that she owes Bradley nothing because, as mentioned above…they worked together for three weeks. Bradley does make one good point, which is that Alex also seemed to abandon her longtime producer Chip (Mark Duplass), who may seem content at home in a smaller job and with a fiancée. But Alex takes Bradley’s note to heart: the episode ends with her appearing on Chip’s doorstep, asking him to rejoin her at UBA, and him (surprisingly quickly) agreeing.
But this is where The Morning Show falters, and this is where I genuinely dread the rest of this season. We know from both of these episodes that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be a genuine part of the season. (Dear God, as I type these words, I realize that we’re probably also going to get a lot of storylines surrounding the George Floyd murder and ensuing protests from the summer of 2020, and this is not a show that can handle the appropriate level of nuance.) But the first two episodes, like the previous season, are about people whose heads are so far up their own asses that it’s exhausting to watch.
The Morning Show is compelling, weirdly so, because it is also an aggressively dumb television program. Each episode merits at least a few times where you can laugh at this show’s absolute silliness. But balancing self-involved nonsense with a genuine worldwide tragedy is something this show likely cannot handle. For now, though, we can only wait and see how the show further incorporates the pandemic — hopefully Daniel isn’t going on the chopping block, since he’s headed to China to cover the virus’ spread. And on a more frivolous note, remember how Julianna Margulies has been heavily marketed as arriving on the scene? One wonders how long we’ll have to wait to get to her name in the opening credits. We’ll see.