Warning: This story contains minor spoilers.
In the first episode of The Morning Show, a viral moment turns plucky small-town field reporter Bradley Jackson, played by Reese Witherspoon, into an overnight sensation. While reporting on a coal-mine protest, Bradley’s camera operator is knocked to the ground by a bro, who yells “fake news!” and calls Bradley a bitch. In response, she goes off on an expletive-filled tirade before she screams, “I’m exhausted!” and shoves the dumb dude for maximum emotional impact.
This is the point in the buzzy new Apple TV+ workplace drama in which we, the audience, is supposed to buy into Bradley as a flawed underdog hothead so fed up with the state of her country and her career that she cannot contain her fury. When big-city producers looking for an edgy new host pluck her from the local news trenches to appear on a national morning show (and through a series of shocking events, she ends up as the co-anchor), we’re meant to believe it’s a groundbreaking hire. As Bradley says to a douchebag network exec (a charismatic Billy Crudup, who steals every scene): “I don’t fit the mould… I don’t fit any mould.”
Except that she does. Bradley Jackson is the quintessential morning-show host: petite, pretty, and white. Witherspoon’s character is positioned as the face of resistance and referred to as the voice for women “who have never seen themselves” in morning television, and yet she’s the same voice (and face) we’ve seen on TV since women were allowed to sit at anchor desks. If this series really wanted to depict a renegade battling against female oppression (the series takes place after a sexual-misconduct scandal involving one of the co-anchors — played by Steve Carell doing his best Matt Lauer), they should have cast a woman of colour, not America’s Sweetheart. In fact, The Morning Show’s post-#MeToo message of empowerment would be a lot more powerful if both of its leads — Jennifer Aniston plays uber-composed co-anchor Alex Levy — didn’t look exactly like Savannah Guthrie or Jenna Bush Hager. At least Good Morning America has Robin Roberts. You know your series has a problem when its on-air talent is less diverse than the real-life shows it’s trying to criticize. Equally as outrageous is that the characters Aniston and Witherspoon play are supposed to be polar opposites who represent completely different groups of women, but the two actresses are discernibly so similar (remember when they were cast as sisters on Friends?).
None of this is a knock on Witherspoon’s talent. She is really trying to pull off this character, but at every turn, it feels like the role was written for someone else. Witherspoon is an executive producer of the series and has made a point to move women into positions of power in the shows she produces, and the The Morning Show is stacked with women writers and directors. However, for the most part, the work of these women reflects a very select and privileged group.
Bradley has many grievances about the TV world (she whines that people have told her she has “too much chin” or is “too brunette”), but how much more powerful would they be if they reflected the reality of non-white women in media (just 11.7% of local TV and radio newsrooms employees in the U.S. are people of colour). I worked in TV for 10 years, six of those years as a segment producer on a live daytime talk show, so I’ve been one of the only Black women in predominately white newsrooms or production meetings. It’s lonely and, yeah, sometimes you’re full of rage over the top-down prejudices festering in antiquated institutions. A Black woman wouldn’t be able to get away with Bradley’s “fuck you” outbursts when her ideas are shut down because they aren’t fluffy enough for morning TV. The need to control your anger even when it’s ready to spill over at every microaggression is one Witherspoon can’t understand, which is one of the reasons her character falls flat.
Not every show needs to include a lead character of colour just for diversity’s sake, but on this show, it feels like a glaring omission. By episode four (after dropping the first three in a bundle, Apple TV+ will now release the show weekly; episode five drops today), The Morning Show’s most overt conversation about race happens between the show’s executive producer, Chip Black (a perpetually exasperated Mark Duplass), and reporter Daniel Henderson (Desean Terry playing “fed-up token Black man in a newsroom” pitch-perfectly). Chip is trying to give Daniel advice on how to land the co-anchor role that *spoiler alert* eventually becomes Bradley’s. “Try being a little softer, a little more accessible,” Chip advises Daniel. “You telling me to be less Black?” Daniel hits back. “This is what I’ve had to deal with my whole life: ‘Don’t come off as smarter than other people, don’t come off too strong, don’t be too opinionated.’” It’s a rare moment in the series (and unfortunately it’s just a quick aside that has little bearing on the plot) that feels real and all too familiar. When I had an on-air TV gig in my early twenties, I had a boss tell me to “dumb it down” because I was “too smart for my look.”
So far in The Morning Show, the Black women characters circling around Aniston and Witherspoon are disappointingly given little to do. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Hannah Shoenfeld, the show’s head talent booker, and Karen Pittman shines as segment producer, Mia Jordan. The only other woman of colour, a reporter named Allison (Janina Gavankar), is so inconsequential she doesn’t even have a last name. There’s a disconnect between the message The Morning Show hopes to convey and the one it’s actually delivering. You can’t make sharp observations about the sameness and sexism of broadcast television if you’re making them solely through the eyes of white women who sustain the status quo.
Despite mediocre reviews, the whispers among critics who have seen the whole first season is that it gets better. And, aside from its flaws, The Morning Show is compulsively watchable. Since Witherspoon is not likely to be recast (as a producer, she’d basically have to fire herself), here’s hoping the show starts to use the Black women they do have. Mbatha-Raw and Pittman are right there.