In Season 3, The Morning Show Is—Finally—the Billy Crudup Show

7 minute read

When an episode from The Morning Show’s third season opens with an homage to Saturday Night Fever, it’s more than just an example of the Apple TV+ drama’s self-aware playfulness. In a tracking shot borrowed from the film’s iconic title sequence, two gleaming dress shoes emerge from a chauffeured car as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” blares. The camera pulls back, and we see it’s following Billy Crudup’s mercurial network president Cory Ellison as he struts into an upfront presentation, greeting the host, meeting performers, and thanking stars for debasing themselves in this annual ritual of begging brands for money. “You’re gonna have your work cut out for you,” he jokes to the hair and makeup team as they accost him with brushes. “Let ’er rip!”

The key moment in the scene comes when Cory is finally alone backstage, after he’s reminded his protégée, stubbornly principled news division head Stella Bak (Greta Lee), that she needs to be courting advertisers hard. Staring into the mirror, he rehearses a spiel written to sound spontaneous, shoulders tense with the burden of saving an empire that’s bleeding cash. The new season, premiering Sept. 13, expands beyond the series’ eponymous Today clone to consider the plight of its fictional network, UBA. Like many real media companies flailing their way through the streaming wars’ current chaos era, the broadcaster is desperate for a savior. Which places unprecedented pressure on the inscrutable Cory—and promotes Crudup from an Emmy-winning supporting actor in a vast ensemble cast to the show’s most crucial role.

It’s the best of several smart choices The Morning Show makes in its third season, as new showrunner Charlotte Stoudt (taking over from Kerry Ehrin) leans into the strengths of an often-silly but always-fun prestige soap whose tone and ambition fall somewhere between And Just Like That and Succession. In another shrewd decision, the story jumps ahead two years after a Season 2 finale that had Jennifer Aniston’s narcissistic yet relatable veteran anchor Alex Levy rebounding from cancellation by documenting her COVID battle on the UBA+ streaming service. Now it’s March 2022; a mid-season flashback episode will spare us the prolonged slog through lockdown, the 2020 election, and Jan. 6. As Cory shovels funds into the money pit that is UBA+ and other departments grumble over austere budgets, employees’ private communications are held ransom in a data breach that calls to mind the 2014 Sony hack.

Jon Hamm in The Morning Show season 3Apple TV+

Vulnerable to an ouster and sick of being accountable to a stodgy board, Cory finds what he believes is a champion in Paul Marks, a devastatingly handsome tech billionaire played by a perfectly cast Jon Hamm. Like Jeff Bezos after a full course of charisma infusions, Paul is breaking ground in commercial space flight. His pal Cory has pulled strings to broadcast the maiden manned voyage of his Hyperion rocket, with Alex set to join the mogul onboard. The test flight will double as a test of UBA’s value to Paul, who’s looking into buying the company and, Cory hopes, giving its president the independence he craves. We first see the men together in a sauna, where Cory labors to endure the heat while making his pitch: “It would make a great press release: While everyone was doomscrolling under the covers during COVID, two guys, they crossed path at high tide in the Hamptons to forge the biggest media deal in a decade.”

Paul is, essentially, who Cory wants to be when he grows up. Cory is by most measures an incredibly powerful man. But Paul makes him, a new and relatively precarious member of the corporate ultra-elite, look like a peon. The ultimate alpha male, an adrenaline junkie with rocket ships and stories about almost dying on a mountain in Nepal, Paul is—physically and in terms of influence—the bigger, stronger, and more intimidating of the two. Cory tries to talk tough with him. But when Paul says “You need a miracle, and buddy, I’m it,” Cory is, for once, speechless.

What may stand in the way of him becoming the next Paul Marks is his conscience. There’s a lot of talk this season about how extreme wealth erodes empathy; how much of the latter Cory has ever possessed remains an open question. In Season 1 he was as an agent of chaos, giddily conspiring to overthrow his stiff predecessor, Fred (Tom Irwin), who covered up sexual misconduct on the part of Alex’s former co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell). When Mitch’s victim Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) dies by suicide, Cory spends much of Season 2 trying to prevent her from being defamed.

So he’s generally on the side of equity and progress—and he gets a palpable jolt out of seeing upstarts like Stella and Alex’s sometimes co-anchor, nonpartisan truth teller Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), stick it to the Establishment. But it’s hard to tell whether his actions are a genuine reflection of his values or just another canny calculation at a time when it behooves white men in the public eye to be seen uplifting oppressed groups. Certainly, we’ve watched him commit some pretty catastrophic failures of allyship. The price of defending Hannah’s memory is outing Bradley and her female lover Laura Peterson (Julianna Margulies), and Cory pays it.

Reese Witherspoon and Billy Crudup in The Morning Show season 3Apple TV+

Of course, he may be acting out of authentic pain in that case. Always the most dynamic figure in the room, thanks to Crudup’s unctuous but affable Type A energy—the most fascinating performance in a show carried by its acting—Cory comes closest to letting his guard down around Bradley. He simply can’t hide that he’s in love with her, or that it’s her righteousness and courage that draw him to her; amid all the grandstanding, Crudup allows us brief glimpses of vulnerability. This tortured connection with Bradley, which is tested again in Season 3, is the most compelling sign we have that there’s a decent soul hidden beneath Cory’s bespoke suits.

As much as it’s improved since Season 1, The Morning Show is always going to be a little goofy. The new episodes continue to portray a world of absurd coincidences, where the same two dozen characters, not all of them famous or influential, keep resurfacing in connection with every conceivable news story. This can be especially frustrating when it comes to Bradley, whose story lines always circle back to her family in West Virginia, generic avatars for rural, white misery who get into exactly the sort of trouble between 2020 and 2022 that you’d expect.

But the show is really onto something with Cory. Through him, it offers an insight that ties together the network’s talent and its leadership: that a businessperson is just as much a performer as a news anchor. Like Tony Manero peacocking through Brooklyn, he feigns unshakable confidence to hide fears that he’s not good enough. The question of whether he has the ego to become another Paul or ideals that make him more like Bradley, whether beyond the chaos-mongering he’s motivated by power or integrity, yields The Morning Show’s most fruitful character arc to date. It’s especially poignant that he doesn’t seem to understand himself any better than a mother who’s convinced he’s irredeemably selfish, or even an onlooker who describes him as “oddly compelling in a Patrick-Bateman-in-a-vinyl-raincoat kind of way.” 

At worst a mere blip between the chauvinistic Freds (or Les Moonveses) of 20th-century broadcasting and the arrogant Pauls of 21st-century tech, but at best a man capable of revitalizing the news and entertainment industries for the next generation, Cory is a new boss with a chance to do better than the old boss. The future of media depends on whether he’s capable of taking it.

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