The last time we saw the men and women of "The Morning Show," they were dealing with a bombshell. Many bombshells, in fact, all of them bursting in the rarefied air of the UBA network's New York studios.
The seasonlong story arc about the sexual-harassment claims against disgraced "Morning Show" co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) came to a head on the air, as his longtime co-host, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), and his replacement, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), blew the lid off Mitch's heinous behavior and the network's expensive, long-running cover-up.
Some justice was done, and some mighty heads finally rolled. Sadly, there was also a heartbreaking casualty in the loss of the overworked, ambitious underling Hannah Shoenfield (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Hannah was going to be the whistleblower who took Mitch down for good. But pressure, fear and guilt got to her first, and she overdosed in her apartment.
It was Hannah's death that made Alex see the light about UBA's malicious wrongdoing and her own tunnel-vision complicity. It also made Hannah a sacrifice to the plot gods, and it's hard to watch the new season go on without her and without the wonderful actress who made the character the troubled conscience of the show.
In fact, the second season of "The Morning Show" (which debuted last week on Apple TV+) presents oodles of challenges to the show and its viewers alike.
The big explosion has happened, and now it's time to deal with the aftermath. We have to move on, but that old baggage contains some necessary items, so we will not be traveling light. It might take us a while to get to where we're going.
The new season starts exactly where the Season 1 left off, before a round of time shifting that makes the premiere a mixed-bag experience. First, we are on the "Morning Show" set, where all hell has just broken loose. People are panicking, careers are imploding, and Alex's minions are sweeping her away, leaving a stunned Bradley with the job of keeping the network's cash cow on its feet.
Then we're hovering over a ghostly New York City, where the empty streets and wailing sirens are a signal that there will be pandemic plot lines in our future. But not just yet, because the show then takes us back to three months earlier, where COVID-19 is not on anyone's radar, and people of "The Morning Show" — past and present — are caught in a post-Alex tailspin. Even Alex.
Bradley has an energetic new co-host (Hasan Minhaj of "The Daily Show"), but ratings are down anyway. Alex is trying to write her autobiography without dishing the Mitch-related dirt that would be its main selling point. Network honcho Cory Ellison (the Emmy-winning Billy Crudup) is losing his quirky cool as he tries to stop the ratings slide by convincing Alex to leave her house in Maine and return to the morning-TV pressure cooker.
What could possibly go wrong?
As it did the first time around, the new season of "The Morning Show" doesn't really kick into gear until the fourth episode, when Alex is finally back on the "Morning Show" desk and the scattered pieces from the first three installments start to fall into place. Or some of them, anyway.
As Stella Bak, the recently installed head of the news division, Greta Lee ("Russian Doll") gets the scene she deserves as she tries to convince Alex to finally make good on the system-smashing statement she made when she took down the UBA patriarchy.
Stella doesn't like or trust Alex, so who knows if she means it? But Lee's shape-shifting performance, along with the combative chemistry between Lee and Aniston, makes you want to keep hanging around to find out.
Speaking of combative chemistry, a big welcome to the marvelous Julianna Margulies as Laura Peterson, a charismatically cagey veteran TV journalist whose motives are always questionable and never less than fascinating. Margulies elevates everyone around her, especially Witherspoon, who could use some backup.
With her hot temper and outsider edge, Bradley Jackson is supposed to be a relatable underdog. But as the bullheaded Bradley continues to learn nothing about the ways of her new world, the character becomes less and less believable, and Witherspoon seems to lose her faith in Bradley and in herself.
The same goes for Carell. After turning in a nuanced, disturbingly good Season 1 performance as the disgraced Mitch, Carell spends the early episodes floundering around in an ill-advised plotline that seems to be tiptoeing in the direction of redemption. Here's hoping it doesn't go there. The actor and the viewers deserve better. Mitch deserves nothing.
Fortunately, the scripts have not failed Aniston and Crudup, whose performances as showbiz survivors who may or may not be decent human beings are as sharp and satisfyingly rich as they were the first time around. What Alex and Cory do for a living requires a tricky mix of intuition and calculation, and they are very, very good at it. So are Aniston and Crudup.
As it takes on the COVID-19 pandemic, the #MeToo movement fallout and the 2020 presidential election, the second season of "The Morning Show" is aiming high again. The people behind this ambitious, erratic series may or may not stick the landing, but it should be great fun watching them try.
The second season of "The Morning Show" debuted Friday on Apple TV+.
(Karla Peterson is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)