I’ve been a latecomer to many of the limited series that have inundated the TV streaming services over the past couple of years, monopolizing so much of our time during the pandemic. But I’ve now seen enough to offer one general observation-slash-warning. With a few obvious exceptions, these shows tend to go downhill after the first season. It’s the familiar curse of the sequel, or what in baseball is known as the sophomore jinx.
I’ve become a fan, for example, of a British genre that might be termed the provincial crime procedural: series like Broadchurch and Happy Valley, set in small rural towns, which typically open with a crime and then follow the investigation, unraveling the mystery as it exposes the hidden secrets, festering traumas, and illicit affairs of the tight-knit community where it takes place. After a taut, six- or eight-episode first season, the series is rewound, and we start all over again — new mystery, new investigation, new secrets — almost always with diminishing returns. I fear a similar fate for the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus. Mike White’s satirical resort-hotel mystery series was quirky and compelling for six episodes, but a repeat engagement does not sound promising.
Different genre, but same problem: The Morning Show, the behind-the-scenes TV drama that launched the Apple TV+ streaming service two years ago. I only recently caught up with the series when I sprang for a trial subscription, mainly to catch a few episodes of the buzzy, Emmy-winning comedy series Ted Lasso (amiable, amusing, a little overrated). I turned to The Morning Show only as an afterthought, with low expectations, since the reviews were decidedly mixed and I’m seriously allergic to most movies and TV series that purport to take us behind the scenes of the world of journalism. They nearly always strike me as overdone and phony.
But The Morning Show was a pleasant surprise. The series pivots, unsurprisingly, around a ripped-from-the-headlines media crisis: the firing of the longtime host of a network morning show (Steve Carell) over accusations of sexual abuse in the office. That leaves his America’s-sweetheart co-host (Jennifer Aniston) to carry on without him, grappling with her own complicity in his behavior, while trying to fend off corporate efforts to ease her out of her job, thanks to falling ratings.
Echoes of the Today show’s Matt Lauer and Katie Couric are hard to miss, and yet The Morning Show is no ham-handed roman-a-clef. Aniston creates a complex, tough but sympathetic portrait of a vulnerable TV diva. And Carell invests the sexual abuser with more ambiguity than is typically allowed in such real-life scandals. He’s a narcissist with charisma; a Matt Lauer who actually tries to fight back.
The series pulsates with nervous energy and backstage intrigue. An ambitious local TV reporter (Reese Witherspoon), discovered in a viral YouTube clip, finds herself thrust into the co-anchor chair, with the backing of the network’s Machiavellian news chief (a wonderfully snakelike Billy Crudup). The show captures the texture of the newsroom, and the backstage corporate maneuvering, as well as anything I’ve seen since Network. And if the #MeToo messaging gets a little heavy-handed near the end, the flashback episode in which we see Carell seduce a pretty young booker on a reporting trip to Las Vegas is gripping, almost painful to watch, yet entirely believable — damning without demonizing.
The Morning Show has just returned for a second season, however, and the momentum has dissipated. The series seems to be wandering. Characters who left at the end of season one are suddenly brought back. Carell is lounging aimlessly in Italy, as if waiting for the script writers to figure out what to do with him. Crudup’s conniving news chief has gained power, but lost much of his sinister edge. The pandemic (which emerged just after filming for the second season began) has been written into the plot, but — unlike the #MeToo storyline, which was integral to the first season’s narrative — feels uneasily grafted on. And much of the fire that Aniston that brought to season one seems have been botoxed out.
No need to suffer through another sophomore slump. After three episodes, I’m done. With thanks, belatedly, for one terrific season.