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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Apple TV Plus’ The Morning Show Offers A-List Cast But Little Else

Apple TV’s mega-budget, star-studded flagship series “The Morning Show” wants to be the “House of Cards” for the fledgling streaming service. It wants to be the program that puts Apple TV Plus on the map, critically and commercially. Unless something drastically changes after episode three, the last one sent to press for review, this feels unlikely to happen. Oh, people will tune in for the star power alone, but a long, complex production process has left this show in search of an identity. Not unlike actual TV journalism in the late ‘10s, “The Morning Show” can’t quite figure what it wants to be, waffling between a soapy take on super personalities like “All About Eve” and “serious” commentary on the state of the world like “The Newsroom.” A couple of the performances—and one in particular—keep it from being a complete disaster, but the show has a high degree of unearned self-importance. 

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A tumultuous production process is evident right from the beginning of “The Morning Show” in a pilot that can’t find its tone or story. Development for this show began about two years ago, before the #MeToo and #FakeNews movements had gained as much cultural relevance as they would over the course of production. Consequently, a show that was reportedly developed as an expose on journalism created by “House of Cards” producer Jay Carson had to become something else to reflect the era in which it was made. Carson left the show, replaced by Kerry Ehrin (“Bates Motel”), and the story of “The Morning Show” shifted, although arguably not enough. It feels caught between a frothy look at TV news politics and a sharp commentary on the state of journalism, too often failing to be either.

One of the interesting undercurrents of “The Morning Show” that’s a bit underdeveloped is the idea that scandal creates opportunity. Every position emptied by a #MeToo controversy has been filled by someone else. One person’s worst day is another’s chance to climb the ladder. And this is especially true in the world of journalism, one in which reporting on awfulness can often make your career. It certainly seems like the event that opens “The Morning Show” could do that for two people—veteran Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and newcomer Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). Alex has co-hosted a successful but sagging morning news show a la “Today” or “Good Morning America” with Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), who gets hit with the accusations of sexual impropriety in the premiere. Exactly what Mitch did remains frustratingly unclear—he claims he just had affairs, and everyone seems to agree that terms like rape or assault aren’t appropriate—but he’s guilty in the court of public opinion and immediately fired. Alex has to go on-air alone and strike the right tone, which she absolutely does. As the new head of news Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) says, “It’s too bad we can’t always throw crisis at her—it turns her lights on.”

You see, Cory and others were planning to push Alex out, delaying her new contract, but now they may be stuck with her as firing Mitch’s partner in the wake of a #MeToo scandal would look bad. Cory finds a way to shake things up with the discovery of a fiery reporter (Witherspoon’s Bradley) in a video rant at a coal miner’s strike goes viral. Of course, Bradley is the opposite of Alex in many ways, and has zero anchor experience. You can probably see where this battle of wills is going ... very slowly. Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nestor Carbonell, Bel Powley, and Desean K. Terry fill out an undeniably stacked supporting cast.

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It’s not that unfair to say that at least the premiere of “The Morning Show” feels like the answer to the question, “How would 'The Newsroom' have handled #MeToo?” There’s a ton of speechifying and dropping of modern issues—although always in kind of a vague manner in terms of real-world politics. This is a show that clearly exists in our time but one that feels comfortable name-dropping Bill Cosby but never Matt Lauer or Megyn Kelly or Donald Trump. And there are times when it feels like it’s almost leaning into the Fake News movement, supporting the idea that journalism is more interested in image than content, and in need of an overhaul. Yes, that’s arguably true, but with the state of propaganda being what it is I’m not sure an A-list program that encourages people never to trust what they hear on TV is exactly worthwhile or really what the producers of this show would want us to take away from it. It’s just an example of a muddled message, likely a result by the harried production. The first two episodes are so tonally jumbled that they end up feeling hollow. I wanted more bite ... or less and just give me a soap. But shows that try to be soapy fodder and statement television never work. Pick your lane. All I know is Bradley yells “It’s exhausting!” at around the 16-minute mark of the premiere, and I knew what she felt with 165 minutes to go.

Having said all of that, we need to talk about Crudup, who is simply always good and absolutely great here. He steals focus in literally every scene and you long for him to come back when he’s gone. His take on Cory is the kind of guy who isn’t exactly amoral but who sees everything—a conversation, a dinner date, a meeting—as a contest to be won. He’s deeply flawed, and he knows it, but he also knows that those flaws have made him a success. He simply devours lines like “Watching a beloved woman’s breakdown is timeless American entertainment,” and “Chaos—it’s the new cocaine!” He seems to be the only one that knows a behind-the-curtain look at “Today” needs to be fun. And then moments later someone with a straight face says, “Being a morning show anchor is the hardest job on television, bar none.” I’ll probably keep watching mostly just for Crudup (to be fair, Duplass and Mbatha-Raw are typically solid too) but I’m hoping the show gives me way less on the hardest job and way more of that new cocaine.

Three episodes screened for review.

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