'The Morning Show' Season 3 Review: Jon Hamm Joins the Chaos

‘The Morning Show’ Season 3 Review: Jon Hamm Joins the Chaos

It’s difficult to top the heights and/or depths of “The Morning Show” Season 2, a borderline camp masterpiece in which Elle Woods sucked face with Alicia Florrick and a disgraced Matt Lauer type drove his car off an Italian bluff. But the Apple TV+ drama is obligated to try, so for its latest premiere, it goes where no fictional daytime infotainment digest has gone before: to outer space.

We open in the spring of 2022, two years since the onset of the pandemic and the end of Season 2. The TMS crew have been offered up as guinea pigs for Paul Marks (Jon Hamm), a billionaire and aerospace pioneer who’s basically a more telegenic Elon Musk (or a younger Richard Branson, or a Jeff Bezos with hair). For some inexplicable reason, this creature of Silicon Valley has taken an interest in legacy media, so to lay the path for a potential acquisition, network CEO Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) wants to give Marks’ latest rocket launch a friendly face and send an anchor into orbit. So does Season 3 start on a quite literal high note, though “The Morning Show” must soon turn to the mess back on Earth.

After a yearlong quarantine, the staff at broadcaster UBA are back in the studio, though not quite to normal. Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), once the titular morning show’s fiery disruptor, has ended her personal and professional partnership with co-anchor Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies) and decamped for the evening news. Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is splitting time between “The Morning Show” and “Alex Unfiltered,” her hit interview series on streaming service UBA+. With Bradley and Alex occupied elsewhere, the producers have brought on Chris Tucker (Nicole Beharie), a former track star now pivoting to television. In a device borrowed from “The Good Fight,” a show that deployed absurdity with much greater precision, a midseason episode catches us up on everything we missed, from George Floyd to January 6th, in less than an hour. But until then, “The Morning Show” plunges the viewer back into the action.

The death of Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), Alex’s longtime colleague whose outing as a serial harasser kicked off the events of the series, offers “The Morning Show” a blank slate. (Behind the scenes, showrunner Kerry Ehrin passed the reins to Charlotte Stoudt between seasons, signaling a potential change in gears.) Instead of dealing with Mitch’s specific misdeeds and their aftermath, “The Morning Show” can turn its attention to other forms of workplace inequity. When a Sony-style hack reveals a racial pay gap and insensitive comments aimed at employees of color, the event introduces a new set of themes — which is not quite the same as “The Morning Show” knowing what to do with them.

However aggressively it positioned itself as a response to #MeToo, “The Morning Show” has never been as exceptional in its treatment of workplace misconduct as its sheer concentration of famous, beautiful people doing outrageous, unbelievable things. In Season 2, the show leaned into its strengths, abandoning logic and heft in favor of soap opera antics. After that rocket-fueled opener, Season 3 appears to tone down in favor of sober rhetoric about Big Tech intruding on the media and the ethics of reporting on war zones. But before long, “The Morning Show” is back to its old tricks, building to a conclusion that’s short on coherence, long on overacted theatrics, and despite it all, a total delight to watch.

Technically, “The Morning Show” remains as flawed as ever. This takes the greatest toll on the subplot centering racial discrimination, a topic “The Morning Show” has addressed before through former anchor Daniel Henderson (Desean K. Terry). Terry is no longer a part of the cast, shifting the burden of sounding the alarm to other members of the series’ increasingly unwieldy ensemble: showrunner Mia (Karen Pittman); Stella (Greta Lee, sporting a fresh haircut one could politely deem “postmodern”), UBA’s head of news; and Beharie’s Chris, who speaks out on behalf of not just herself, but for support staff without her visibility and resources. Yet their story line trails off by the end of the season, an anticlimax that signals the opposite of the show’s intended emphasis on marginalized workers.

The result is an oddly meta instance of a show fronted by wealthy white women trying and failing to do right by its less privileged employees, a factual description of both “The Morning Show” on UBA and “The Morning Show” on Apple TV+. The attempted gravity of these supporting characters’ struggles is at odds with how haphazardly they’re introduced and developed. Chris has an intriguing background in professional sports and relationship with her husband-slash-agent, but never fully coalesces into a proper co-lead. Stella, meanwhile, remains a contradiction. She’s introduced as a techie turned potential protegé for the calculated, chaos-loving Cory after UBA acquires her startup, yet also treated as a sincere advocate for change within UBA’s hidebound bureaucracy. If only “The Morning Show” let these players be as amoral and self-interested as their white colleagues. In this world, that’s equality.

The nonsensical plotting of “The Morning Show” is far more enjoyable when it’s applied to bigger names and lower real-world stakes. Politically, the idea of plutocrat as sex symbol makes me wrinkle my nose; aesthetically, I’m just a woman who can appreciate seeing Jon Hamm back in Business Jerk mode, this time with Jennifer Aniston as his partner in old-school, star-on-star chemistry. Much like the surprise pairing of Margulies and Witherspoon, it’s a relationship light on professional ethics and heavy on theatrics, especially once Alex gets involved in Paul and Cory’s schemes for UBA. The more “The Morning Show” focuses on high-level corporate intrigue, abandoning the studio for the boardroom, the more it starts to feel like “Succession” on a powerful cocktail of name-brand pharmaceuticals. As ever, no one captures this madcap tone better than Crudup, who swings in the space of an episode from screaming about “headfucking deal points” to crooning an acoustic piano rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

“The Morning Show” sometimes dabbles in open satire; some UBA projects, like a prestige drama about the Donner Party or an Aaron Sorkin biopic of Henry Kissinger, wouldn’t be out of place on “30 Rock.” But the show is simply too earnest about the journalistic integrity of its heroines to come across as a deliberate spoof. Not that it matters: when Bradley’s troubled home life and ascendant career somehow collide during the insurrection at the Capitol, you won’t stop to ask where your giddy joy is coming from. After an underwhelming launch, “The Morning Show” has finally become must-see TV, if not quite according to the initial plan.

The first two episodes of “The Morning Show” Season 3 are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes premiering weekly on Wednesdays.