The Morning Show Has Become a Camp Masterpiece
About four episodes into the new season of Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, I stopped expecting it to have the qualities of a prestige television series—narrative complexity, emotional resonance, logic—and began simply appreciating it for what it is: one of the most batshit-expensive soap operas ever made. And that’s perfect. Ink-dark dramas in which Oscar winners suck wearily on vape pens or try to survive nuclear fallout in order to Say Something about modernity are a dime a dozen, the glut of the peak-TV harvest. What’s less common is the show Apple has inadvertently gifted us: a feast of high camp and late capitalism.
If you can meet The Morning Show on those terms, its second season is quite a ride. The first, which arrived after several years of extended hype and snarky commentary about its reported (and disputed) $15-million-an-episode price tag, was largely a critical disappointment, even if viewers loved it. Reimagined post-#MeToo to incorporate story lines about sexual harassment and abuses of power in network television, the show couldn’t quite balance its commitment to serious plot points with its extravagant impulses toward musical numbers and Machiavellian speechifying. Its writing was consistently laughable, if not surreal. I recently found a list I had made of some of the strangest lines from Season 1: “America loves me, and therefore I own America.” “It’s fun to smile. It feels good.” “So what can you do when you see all these little anchovies belly up in the water? You just keep on moving, and you brace yourself for the shitstorm.”
But what is “good TV” anyway? Who’s to say that a show in which a character trips over a high heel and wakes up in the hospital with COVID-19 is any more or less worthy than one of HBO’s many shows about murdered women? If we interpret camp to be something so unironically bad that it’s actually good—a tribute to excess and artifice in which, as Susan Sontag wrote, everything is always in quotation marks (using the terminology of the show, not feminism but “feminism,” not gelato but “gelato”)—then in Season 2, The Morning Show is a camp masterpiece. Liberated from its previous desire to parse events in a meaningful way, it’s become stranger and more fun. That isn’t to say that current events don’t come up (the season touches on the pandemic, inequity in the workplace, social-media pile-ons, and the 2020 election), only that they’re far less important to the show than interpersonal melodrama and random bursts of song. Countless times during the 10 new episodes, I covered my face with my hands in shame for everyone involved, and yet I’m so sad they’re over.
A brief recap of the basics from Season 1: Mitch Kessler (played by Steve Carell), one of the hosts of a morning show on the fictional network UBA, was fired for sexually harassing women in the workplace, leaving his co-host, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), and the show in crisis. After antagonistically interviewing a southern TV reporter, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), whose profane rant at a protest had gone viral, Alex announced at a gala dinner that Bradley would be her new co-host, surprising Bradley and her network bosses. Alex and Bradley ultimately teamed up on air to expose their network’s toxic culture and history of abetting abusers, with the blessing of their head of news, Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup).
Season 2 deals with some of the fallout, elliptically. It’s not really worth getting into, since the show seems more interested in appearing topical and nursing old grievances than in exploring the business of making a morning show. For one thing, Bradley calls in sick for four successive weeks and no one seems to care. Characters talk endlessly about what people are saying “on Twitter.” Cory, who’s been promoted to head of the network, is launching a streaming service and is baffled by the lukewarm reaction of the public, all of which feels like one big subtweet about people not wanting to pay for Apple TV+. (“Another streaming service? They should be illegal,” one character says, by way of pillow talk. “You could just not subscribe,” her lover replies.) There are repeated references to “the woke mob” and “the novel coronavirus.” (“I had SARS; it was wonderful,” a weekend anchor says in one scene, a declaration so strange I’m still scratching my head over it two days later.)
But none of this matters, really, given the scale of the spectacle. We’re used to bad TV looking bad, to plywood sets and green-screen car crashes and eyebrow acting. The Morning Show looks like a million dollars, or even its reported $300 million. The disconnect between its presentation and its quality is the most striking thing about it. During the first episode of Season 2, the show sends Alex to a festive party in a mansion filled with hundreds of be-sequined extras just so that she can have an altercation with a psychic (Kathy Najimy) and listen to a meaningful voicemail while waiting for her car outside in the snow. You can almost sense hundreds of thousands of dollars evaporating into the crisp air.
And yet all the expenditure does provide a kind of realism that the writing doesn’t: It means that the show can, for instance, stage a realistic simulacrum of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and of a train station in Wuhan, China, in early 2020. (Maybe it’s just too soon to dramatize the pandemic, but the show’s portrayal of characters arguing that COVID is no different from the flu and being befuddled by the phrase social distancing feels like a pure-ham pantomime of early-pandemic ignorance.)
Sontag argued that true camp is only possible “in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence,” a sentence that somehow predated the existence of Silicon Valley and the peacocking of Instagram partnerships and Met Gala gowns. Verily, then, The Morning Show is camp: earnest, schlocky, nonsensical drama that’s not ruined by its excess and ridiculousness, but redeemed by it. Peak TV or no, there’s only one show this fall in which Martin Short bitterly tells a roomful of people during a eulogy that the cause of death for all of them will be “cancel culture.” It’s baffling, it’s very bad, and yet how lucky we are to have it.