"The Morning Show" looks at how consequences catch up to some people sooner than others

The Apple TV+ series treats cancel culture like COVID: it doesn't affect everyone equally

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 13, 2021 3:30PM (EST)

The Morning Show (Apple TV+)
The Morning Show (Apple TV+)

Strangely this season's cancel culture conversation in "The Morning Show" feels simultaneously behind the times and timely, a puzzling liminal state indeed. Never mind the entire Mitch Kessler business; he's dead. We're talking about the horror of cancellation as it pertains to UBA anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), Mitch's on-air partner, work wife, secret lover and millionaire likely many times over.

This entire season has followed Alex's doomed attempt to return to the fictional network's a.m. flagship after Mitch was ousted. To be more accurate, it's been about her boss Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) and his Pyrrhic stubbornness to bolster his own career and "save" greenhorn "Morning Show" anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon).

Cory's plan moved along not quite well, but steadily enough . . . until Alex found out a damning tell-all about her and Mitch's time together on and off the air.

Related: "The Morning Show" and making sense of Mitch and Alex's wild ride in Italy

For all my previous quibbles about the entire Mitch affair, the "Morning Show" subplot involving the network's slow response to the threat posed by COVID-19 has felt even more contrived this time around until this season's ninth episode makes it an analogue to social cancellation.

The beauty of that is that one day we'll look back on both phenomena and designate them as temporary insanities that gripped society in their own way, forgetting that this diagnosis is only true for those of us who either weren't directly affected by the virus or any version of social trial in the court of public opinion.

To anyone who has lost someone to COVID, or lost the health they used to take for granted, that's a cruel dismissal of their pain. And it must be said that dying or becoming disabled by a virus fundamentally and extremely differs from having consequences imposed about you for doing terrible things or, in Mitch's case, engaging in predatory abuses of power.

As Alex's story plays out in "Testimony," we see a glimpse of potential in the way "The Morning Show" could demonstrate the very real truth that the punishment women receive for their mistakes or miscalculations tend to be more severe than those visited upon men who tend to do far worse usually face.

This is yet another dialogue "The Morning Show" embarks upon two years after cancellation debates boiled over and caramelized into bitterness, and when the concept of cancellation held the veneer of power. Even then those who knew better than to get too drunk on the promise of progress pointed out that being "canceled" was never real or lasting.  They'd seen similar movements in previous decades rise only to be chopped down soon after and predicted, accurately, that any gains in the arena of accountability would likely be temporary and illusory.

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Therefore a person should be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the whole notion of Alex being "canceled," because it comes in a season and a year containing a mountain of evidence that "cancel culture" isn't as real as the people boo-hooing about it claim it to be. It's great branding for the likes of Dave Chappelle and Bill Cosby, but that's about the extent of its power. Chappelle capitalizes upon the phrase like it's an ad scroll on a blimp while raking in millions and all the attention he could possibly want by punching down, again, and somehow claiming to be a victim of said (non-existent) movement.

Cosby's criminal acts committed and ignored for decades were finally punished by the justice system until earlier this year when he was released from prison on a technicality. "Cancel culture" doesn't stick even when there are multiple witnesses and the force of the law behind it.

These join a gallery of other living examples reminding us of the false threat of the "cancel culture" kaiju, which has yet to destroy, among many, Mel Gibson, Chris Brown, Johnny Depp or DaBaby. (Bradley can even fully cut ties with her brother, an unstable addict who makes a scene at her workplace before cutting out of rehab, leaving the envelope full of money she left him when they parted with the bellman at the hotel where she's living.)

Whereas nobody's asking when the women whose comedy careers were canceled before they began will get a shot at even arriving in the spotlight. Separately, nobody's trying to unstick cancellation from legitimately awful folks like Paula Deen and Megyn Kelly. Nobody should. That being the case, we should question why some wonder, loudly and with feeling, how long is enough time for men found guilty of sexual misconduct or abuse to stay in the jail of relative obscurity.

It's not as those offenders need to be worried about. For men, the only true and lasting career cancellation is death; even then, with enough time and political motivation people are more than happy to build the most odious of figures a statue or 10.

Mitch's candidacy to be immortalized in bronze is far from pending, but it is telling that "The Morning Show" hinted at the possibility of his redemption by having him soul search in a multi-million dollar Italian villa and find absolution by way of a final fling with a passionate, iconoclastic Italian documentary filmmaker.

"Maybe the world has to stop playing games with people's lives," a eulogizer observes at a memorial with an open bar arranged by Mitch's ex-wife Paige (Embeth Davidtz). "Maybe they have to stop judging people for ordering something from a different page of the sexual menu. Stop treating people like single-use plastic!"  

Referring to sexual predation as "a different page of the sexual menu" is a real stretch, boy howdy. Or it is for anyone but Kessler's fellow abuser Dick Lundy (Martin Short, flawlessly murdering his cameo), who verbalizes how those whining about "cancel culture" and "wokeness" tend to feel about any attempts to hold many wrongdoers who happen to get caught to account.

Admitting they're not perfect when they get caught or blurting out a mea culpa should be enough, right? A man shouldn't lose his life over it!

Women are a different matter, and Alex knows it. Her actions in this episode are the equivalent of the death row convict taking the long walk toward the execution chamber, as she takes responsibility for the way that she's benefited from the system that raised her up along with Mitch.

First she meets with Cory, who is committed to mitigating the damage so she can stay on the air. To this she bluntly lets him know it won't work. "Your feminist hero slept with the enemy," she said. "Did it on purpose. Not coerced. While married. And she doesn't regret it one bit. That's who I am."

Then, after a successful show co-anchored with Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies), she has a heart to heart where Laura lays it on the line, explaining to Alex how her gossip about Laura's private life in the '90s derailed her career while accelerating Alex's. And Alex genuinely was not aware that this is the source of her enmity but doesn't deny being a gossip when they were younger.

Laura, ever the serene sage, receives her apology by replying, "I imagine you had no ill intent, but we are our actions."

But we do not suffer the effects of said actions equally. In an interview staged between Bradley and Maggie Brener (Marcia Gay Harden), author of the tell-all meant to destroy Alex's reputation, Bradley deliberately shreds Maggie, painting her as a woman refusing to grant mercy to another woman who has demonstrably changed in the decade since she slept with a terrible man on purpose, uncoerced.

That seems to do the trick, until someone at Mitch's wake circulates a recording of Alex offering her piece on Mitch to the mourners in attendance, where she admits to having visited him in Italy right before he drove himself off a cliff.  That revelation, at last, gets her canceled at the same time she faces the material consequence of taking an impromptu trip to Italy at the outset of a pandemic, waking up in the hospital to the news that she's tested positive for COVID.

Even as the "cancel culture" subplot reaches its climax in the second season of "The Morning Show" it's difficult to boil down the writers' core philosophy about it into a solid nut graf, beyond the thought that it's only as real as people decide it is. The Laura Peterson storyline is proof that's not entirely true, that it's quite real for those who don't enjoy the backing of the executives holding all the cards and their careers in their hands.

On the other hand, Cory's shifting and self-serving allegiances make it clear that with the right amount of spin, Mitch very well could have made a comeback.

During an appearance on a UBA late night show, Cory likens journalists sniffing around controversy at his network to the titular heroine in "The Princess and the Pea," positing that columnists are obsessed with spotting a pea because they think if they can prove they so sensitive that it bruised them. "Then they can make the world believe they're royalty. Only, they don't know where the peas are, so they just act bruised by everything and hope they guess right one time."

Cory likes to spin terrible scenarios into wins waiting to happen, insisting to those pointing at the cliffs on the road ahead of him that they're actually looking at launch pads. His network is a veritable pea patch, and he knows it.

But having seen former UBA President Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin) push out of the company  with a $119.2 million parachute, he can be secure in knowing that whatever happens to Alex, he'll be fine.

At the beginning of Alex's long stroll toward her reckoning, Cory tries to cheer her up with a story about tilting a pinball machine to prevent a loss that would otherwise be unstoppable. It become clear that the pinball game represents the chance he's taken on Alex and the career she's ready to lose.

"I put my quarters in, and nobody's gonna forget that I pulled the plunger," Cory says. "And I got balls left to play!"

Alex knows that doesn't matter, offering a bitter double entendre in response. "You'll always have balls left to play, Cory," she says. "That's who you are."

New episodes of "The Morning Show" debut Fridays on Apple TV+.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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