In the AppleTV+ series The Morning Show, Jennifer Aniston gives the best performance of her career, alongside a stacked supporting cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Billy Crudup and Bel Powley. Aniston’s real power in the series, though, is bringing a meta-textual narrative to her character of a woman cracking under the pressure of being famous.
Don’t worry, as news anchor Alex Levy, the woman left to pick up the pieces after her longtime co-host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is fired from the network for sexual misconduct, Anison gets plenty of biting lines.
As Alex, Aniston gives the best performance of her career, getting inside the skin of this hyper-famous, hyper-public woman and giving her an impressively rich and lived-in persona. Alex is so angry, so furious at Mitch for what he has done to the women on her show, so frustrated with the all-male network executives who – even after the scandal – refuse to give her any power over the show she has helmed for 15 years. As Alex, Aniston shouts and yells and bottles up and breaks free and cries and sobs and is wholly, entirely compelling.
“You’re not listening to me,” Aniston seethes, in episode three, after her requests to the network are denied – yet again. “You all are so convinced that you are the rightful owner of all the power that it doesn’t even occur to you that someone else could be in the driving seat!”
This scene, in which Aniston lays out her plan for a future of the television network that is resplendently female, is great. Aniston makes a three course meal out of her dialogue, putting each of those (largely white, male) executives firmly in their place.
But her best scene in The Morning Show is actually her first. The series opens with Aniston going through Alex’s morning routine before heading to the television studio. It’s 3:30AM and the alarm clock rings. She walks on the treadmill for half an hour, half-asleep, head resting against the monitor. She drinks a red bull, and then a black coffee. She surveys her reflection in the mirror, pulling at skin and pressing against her forehead. She applies an eye mask and then vigorously rubs her face with a rose quartz roller. She reads her notes for the days interview, packs her bag, and makes her way to the studio.
All of this takes place without a single line of dialogue, just Aniston alone in her apartment, going through the exhausting motions of being a powerful woman in the public eye.
This is the major concern of The Morning Show, the jewel in shiny new streaming service AppleTV+’s crown. Directed by Mimi Leder – the woman behind On The Basis of Sex and Deep Impact – and featuring an all-star cast that includes Reese Witherspoon as a news anchor brought in to replace Mitch, Billy Crudup as a ruthless network executive and Bel Powley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as ambitious colleagues behind the scenes of the news show, the series is also Aniston’s first return to television since Friends, the title that transformed her into a superstar.
It’s hard to imagine a smarter piece of casting than Aniston, America’s Sweetheart and one of the most famous women in the world, as Alex, America’s Sweetheart and one of the most famous women in the world. Which is why The Morning Show – a tonally confused and occasionally shaky series that is, nonetheless, so compulsively watchable it gives new meaning to the word ‘binge’ – is best when it focuses on Alex and, therefore, on Aniston.
What Aniston does is bring a meta-textual narrative to the character of Alex, infused with her own experiences as a woman in the very, very public eye. There’s a whole scene in which Alex and her estranged husband Jason (Jack Davenport, I told you this cast was stacked), roast the gossip rags for printing rumours about her. This scene feels like a personal request from Aniston, who has famously spent most of her career fighting back against toxic tabloids and the publications who constantly report on her dating life, or her status as a heartbroken woman, or the fact that she is a child-free woman, or her friendship feuds, or the fact that she’s apparently “flaunting” her “bikini body” with reckless abandon as if this is relevant, front page news.
“Page Six thinks I’m crazy,” Alex says, opening another bottle of wine.
“Page Six thought you were pregnant 10 times last year, who cares?” Jason responds.
In other episodes, we also see just how much Alex has sacrificed in order to rise to the top of her career and stay so famous, and so successful, for so long. She is estranged from her husband and no-one – not even her own daughter – knows. She has very few friends that aren’t also colleagues (her hair and makeup artist; her producer) or her employees (her agent). And she spends her entire life having every single decision that she makes questioned. At every turn, by everyone.
Those white men in suits who run the television network wanted to fire her from the show because she’s too old, but Mitch’s sexual misconduct scandal derailed their ambitions. Now, their Machiavellian ambition is to bring in an exciting new – younger – female co-host to show just how ‘over’ Alex really is.
“Watching a beloved woman’s breakdown is timeless American entertainment,” Cory (Crudup) drawls.
The Morning Show agrees, but in showing Alex breaking down it skewers, rather than strengthens that proposition. It questions the impulse to grab a bag of popcorn whenever we see a famous woman put a toe out of line. And it gives agency over their narrative back to the women who, by virtue of their celebrity status, have had it taken away from them.
“Bradley, I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing,” Alex tells her new co-host at the end of episode three. “I’m running on instinct. But I know that I need a second so that I can get my shit together so that I can go on air tomorrow. And I know that I need to not be in that building with those fucking people who are constantly judging my choices.”
When The Morning Show is good, it’s very, very good. It’s a series that gives us a window into how debilitating the gossip cycle can be for the women unlucky enough to find themselves in its cross hairs, starring a woman who knows all too well what that feeling is like. The series shows us constantly just how great Alex’s burden is – there are too many scenes to count in which Alex breaks down in her dressing room, staring at her face in the mirror. Or when she starts crying in the limousine on the way to a party at which she is being honoured as journalist of the year because she can’t face another night putting on a happy face despite the sexual misconduct scandal that threatens to derail her career. Or when she yells, and yells and yells that all she wants is what she asks for and deserves, but that nobody ever listens to her.
Who better to remind us of this untenable, unbearable position than, quite literally, the most famous woman in the world? Nobody else could eviscerate the pressure of being a woman in the public eye quite like Jennifer Aniston.
The Morning Show’s first three episodes are available to stream now on AppleTV+, with a new episode dropping every Friday.