Mess and Message on 'The Morning Show'

| 01 Nov 2019 | 05:00

    “Watching a beloved woman’s breakdown is timeless American entertainment.”

    The woman in question is Jennifer Aniston’s “Alex Levy,” veteran news anchor of "The Morning Show," the show within a show offered by subscription on Apple TV.

    From much-hyped promos and the trailer, I fully expected that Aniston and co-star Reese Witherspoon had made All About Eve 2.0, where a younger women manipulates to get her more established colleague’s job. But I misjudged, and the two proponents of the Time’s Up movement are actually making a program about women helping women.

    Set in Manhattan, it opens with Alex’s co-host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) getting #MeToo-ed and dethroned. In a standoff with the smug, network news president, Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), Alex demands she choose her new desk partner or she’ll walk; Cory sees this as an opportunity to free up two anchor chairs (“her sell-by date expired years ago,”) and bring in all new talent to boost the show’s lagging ratings. “So walk,” he counters.

    To antagonize her even further, he invites scrappy, minor market reporter and viral video train wreck Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) to an industry event. Alex returns the volley by announcing on impulse to a room full of media colleagues that Bradley will be her new co-host.

    Everyone, including the mismatched team, prays this pairing works to keep the show on-air and everyone employed. Cory, however, licks his chops, sure that once on air, the duo will internally combust.

    As Apple TV has only released three episodes, it seems that this will move forward with Aniston and Witherspoon’s characters, each in her own way, learning there’s no I in TEAM.

    I’d like to see that work.

    Partners and 'Handholding'

    Twenty-five years ago, I left my life as a staffer, giving up the chance at a prestigious title for the freedom of the gig economy.

    Unlike Alex, I exited full-time employment before “my sell-by date,” hence never knew what it was like to have a dewy-skinned version of my mature myself trying to slide into my C-suite, or a boss push me to the side so he could hire the pretty. I guess that’s why I relate more to Reese’s character.

    Right after college, all I wanted to do was be a New York professional, then I got my wish. I realized, as Bradley does, when you’re low person on the totem pole, it’s hard to tell whether all the people who “know better” are telling you what to do to be helpful or using you to galvanize their own agendas.

    When Bradley admits she doesn’t have any power and knows it’s futile to speak up to Cory, so she does what’s asked of her, all I could think was: I feel you.

    The real trigger for me was, as Bradley prepares for her first show, Alex is nowhere around. She finally tracks down the jaded TV star to explain although the rookie doesn’t need “handholding,” isn’t that what partners do? Hold each other’s hands and go through it together.

    I related to Bradley’s POV because when I was in advertising, staff copywriters and art directors worked in teams. I romanticized what partnership was: having each other’s backs; each halves of a whole. Except my other halves never seemed to get that memo.

    I had one who took one-upmanship to new heights, another who thought “partner” was a synonym for “assistant.”

    I’m sure there are critics who’ll write the show off as fluff, but it does tackle some uncomfortably familiar workplace issues. Jennifer Aniston’s character isn’t the only one who has to lean in to get recognition. Two women of color, a producer and talent booker, have to go behind the boss’s back to get a good assignment. Then there’s the passive-aggressive producer who watches everything play out from a safe distance, then lands on the side of the victor.

    Lest we forget Steve Carell’s Weinstein/Lauer portrayal, who thinks that a subordinate's saying no to the boss out of fear of losing her job is the same as saying yes.

    I don’t know if "The Morning Show" will be a hit, but if nothing else perhaps it can become a wake-up call to how to improve New York’s office culture.

    Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels "Fat Chick" and "Back to Work She Goes."