'The Morning Show' and the power of a second act

Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in 'The Morning Show'

Lindsey Mantoan is an assistant professor of theater at Linfield University. She is the co-editor of "The Methuen Drama Book of Trans Plays" and three other books. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Note: This essay contains spoilers for season two of "The Morning Show."

Four years after a wave of #MeToo revelations toppled titans in the entertainment world who abused their power, US culture continues to contend with the question of what to do with toxic men, and what's next for the movement.
    Lindsey Mantoan
    Apple TV+'s star-studded original series "The Morning Show," launched in 2019, considers behind-the-scenes troubles at a morning news show through the lens of #MeToo, and demonstrates the challenges to answering these questions of second acts. Based in part on CNN's Brian Stelter's 2013 book "Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV" (Stelter is a consulting producer on the series) and with obvious narrative parallels to the history of NBC's "Today" show, season one of "The Morning Show" starts with the firing of the show's beloved male anchor after revelations of sexual misconduct and investigates the contours of complicity and the effects of abuse of power.
      Grappling with the fallout after the firing of anchor Mitch Kessler, played with humanizing force by Steve Carell, are the series' central characters Alex Levy, co-anchor of the show played with stunning nuance by Jennifer Aniston; and Bradley Jackson, Alex's new hotheaded on-air partner portrayed by an impassioned Reese Witherspoon. The show's examination of second acts plays out not only in terms of Mitch's character, but also in the storylines of Alex and Bradley, who wrestle with other forms of workplace abuse, boundaries of workplace responsibility and issues of journalistic integrity.
        The series' second season, which began September 17, 2021, follows a painful rupture -- both within the world of the show and, in a self-referential way, about the world of entertainment after #MeToo. While the show occasionally flounders, it also responds to an urgent cultural need to process misconduct and locate pathways toward healing, demonstrating in an all-too-relatable fictional reality that often it is the women, not the men, who work the hardest to change themselves and invest in authentic second acts.
        Taking up broader cultural concerns about #MeToo's reverberations, a major storyline of season two follows Mitch's halting attempts to grapple with his actions. After being accosted by an angry American woman while he's eating gelato in Italy, Mitch meets documentarian Paola Lambruschini (Valeria Golino), who summarizes the problematic nature of a second act after society cancels a #MeToo abuser, saying of the American accoster: "She doesn't know what she wants from you. If you apologize, she says it's insincere. If you try to do good for the world, it's self-serving. If you dare to live your life, 'the gall.' If you choose to die, then you're taking the coward's way out. You must live and suffer. But you mustn't do it in front of us and you mustn't try to learn from it."
          Indeed, the series' second season preoccupation with the question of what's next for toxic men offers no satisfying answers. Mitch may make some progress understanding the trauma his actions caused, and his mentorship of Paola as she works on a documentary about rape law in Italy represents halting steps toward doing good for the world. But when new accusations arise claiming his predatory behavior disproportionally targeted Black women, Mitch takes what Paola identifies as "the coward's way out" -- he allows his car to careen over a cliff, raising questions of whether "The Morning Show" itself takes an easy approach to the question of what to do with toxic men.
          "The Morning Show" demonstrates that second acts for sexual predators continue to be unimaginable, but it's not clear that "canceling" them, rather than the much more uncomfortable act of holding them accountable, provides the opportunity for what #MeToo founder Tarana Burke has said lies at the heart of the movement: "radical community healing" (also note that canceling here seems to take the form of holing up in a million-dollar mansion in Lake Como). Mitch dies having never taken responsibility for his actions.
          The show denies us examples of men improving, although we do see gestures toward growth through Alex's character. Alex responds to the toxic men in her life by becoming a toxic force of her own, myopically focused on not being canceled herself. For all her narcissism, though, audiences are treated to glimpses of what accountability might look like via Alex's journey.
          In the season two finale, Alex does a solo, hourlong livestream from her penthouse, talking about being diagnosed with Covid-19 and what it's like living under intense public scrutiny. Filmed with Aniston staring directly into the camera, the speech grows increasingly uncomfortable to watch, an indictment of the real-world fixation on human failure and schadenfreude.
          The suggestion that therapy might play a role in creating the foundations for a real reckoning with the past haunts the show, without fully committing to the benefits of counseling (as the wildly successful "Ted Lasso" did by structuring its entire second season around the importance of attending to mental health). Bradley's love interest, journalist Laura Peterson (played with delightful queer energy by Juliana Margulies) suggests multiple times to Bradley that she needs therapy. Laura's own unflappable demeanor provides some evidence of its positive effects (her honest exchange with Alex in the penultimate episode about the way the two gossiped about each other in the past is further evidence). Bradley however shows no indications of planning to seek counseling, and despite small gestures toward repairing harm, the primary characters in "The Morning Show" continue to spin out of control.
          Zooming out, all this concern with second acts echoes the real-life career trajectory of the show's female leads, Aniston and Witherspoon. Expanding cultural approaches to the idea of "America's Sweetheart," both beloved actresses, along with season two standout Margulies, offer refreshing representations of successful television women. It's a revelation to see three middle-aged, powerhouse female actors, with their wrinkles and reading glasses, take on a culture that enables abuse of power by toxic men.
          In her new memoir "Going There," Katie Couric writes of the conditions that enabled Matt Lauer and others to prey on women in the workplace. While her story is oversimplified, Couric deserves recognition for writing about some of the tumultuous events related to Lauer's firing and grappling with her own accountability in them.
          Rebecca Traister points out that Couric, whose book prompted some sexist and mean-spirited headlines, was "pilloried for doing the heavy, ugly lifting of investigating nasty power dynamics and her own participation in them, while her male peers, many of whom have bombed out in their own spectacular ways, aren't sitting around asking themselves hard questions." These are the hypocritical contours of the tightrope act women perform to balance likability and accountability, while "The Morning Show" folds in a third layer of self-preservation. In this sense, "The Morning Show" mirrors real life, with more women focusing on their own complicity and doing some of the important emotional work toward a healthier future -- and enduring public scorn for doing so -- while more men opt for easier paths.
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            This kind of investigation into the past and projection into the future requires messy, emotional labor.
            Perhaps the show's third act will reveal glimpses at how a healthy workplace might operate -- and perhaps men will start to do the work.