(Mild spoilers afoot)
Apple TV+’s The Morning Show is a lot of things. By which I mean, it is the most try-hard of try-hard shows on TV right now. In the deluge of sameness that is this “content” era of media, being a try-hard is not necessarily a bad thing, I can’t fault a show for doing everything it can not to be forgettable. The Morning Show is what you would get if you were to inject Aaron Sorkin with every ill-conceived idea from the creators of Billions, the smarmy snark of late-era Adam McKay and just about everything Aaron Sorkin was doing during the early 2000s. It is an awesome show, and it is a trainwreck too.
And yet, for a show that tries so goddamn hard at everything, from the dialogue to the lighting, the long march of TMS towards becoming a camp classic is watered down by one of the most uninspired soundtracks on TV right now. A collection of needle drops that is as expensive as it is … things a bland 50-year-old white guy would jam to. That shouldn’t be a problem, necessarily. But TMS also fails at the second part of the needle-drop equation: The when and why the music drops in a given scene. And the series fails not by choosing the incorrect tune, but by choosing the most basic, albeit expensive soundtrack.
The misuse and abuse of needle drops is worthy of its own 101 & 102 on a film studies curriculum, but if you want a complete introduction, I’d recommend checking Patrick H. Willems’ video-essay “A Complete Guide to Pop Music Needle Drops in Movies”. For now, let’s consider three concepts from the essay: Diegetic music, or the music being played within the narrative (the characters can hear it); Non-diegetic music, music played for the audience but not within the narrative’s universe (or, the characters can’t hear it), and the “lazy Non-diegetic, director perspective needle drop.” For example, whenever they play “New York, New York” to aerial shots of New York City, or “Fortunate Son” on anything Vietnam-War related. The Morning Show has racked up multiple counts of the former, though at times, the needle-drops barely make any sense to the narrative.
To begin with, the series showrunners are clearly obsessed with the verbose eloquence of 1930s to 1950s Hollywood, which means dipping a little into the Library of American Standards but mostly just putting Frank Sinatra front and center, but there will be no cuts from the moody, Capitol-era Sinatra. Just the ones everybody knows.
They have used “New York, New York” twice. Twice. Once as a downtempo cover by Billie Eilish (when Mitch Kessler returns to NYC amid the scandal) and once in the end credits of season two’s premiere.
WE GET IT, IT’S A SHOW ABOUT HIGH ROLLERS IN NEW YORK CITY. Don’t they know Carey Mulligan already did the best downtempo, moody and ironic version of it in Shame?
Not to be outdone, they drop “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in scenes showing Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) in an Italian palazzo, hiding in a self-imposed exile. “Fly Me to the Moon” (Astrud Gilberto’s version) in the season three opener, where Corey (Billy Crudup) and Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) fly to space. A crooner sings “Nice Work if You Can Get It” at a fancy fundraiser hosted in Alex’s (Jennifer Aniston) apartment, while everybody is discussing the future of the show. “I Put a Spell on You,” in an Annie Lennox cover when Alex and Paul Marks (John Hamm) get it on. There are too many Standards being dropped to mention here, both in their classic versions or as downtempo covers. But the show doesn’t just abuse the pre-war and post-war Great American Songbook. They just dropped a cover of “Three Little Birds” at the end of season three’s finale, right after Alex walked Bradley to the FBI office. “Angel of the Morning” as Bradley and Laura (Julianna Margulies) start falling in love. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” when Stella (Greta Lee) reveals to Cory that Paul wants to shitcan him once he buys UBA.
And then there are the baffling choices, still using … shallow cuts. Being a series that drops at least one montage per episode, you see this a lot. There is the montage when Bradley’s drug-addicted brother has a meltdown in the studio and starts singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” which then begins playing non-diegetically. Or the tracking-shot opener in season three, episode four, set to the tune of “Stayin Alive,” which I’m sure is a tribute to Saturday Night Fever and Scorsese but… what else? Is the point that Cory is trying to survive in the current media landscape? How original! Add to that a lounge-y cover of “Creep” in season one, played diegetically while Cory and Bradley have dinner. But nothing is as weird as the moody cover of “Dancing in the Dark” used at the end of season three, episode eight, when the crew of the show commemorates the death of Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
All of these needle-drops fail to create new ideas about what is put on the scene about the characters. It mostly feels like the showrunners are showing off the budget of the music department. And yet, you can take some of these overused tracks and put them to good use. And there’s a great example in the same streaming platform: For All Mankind.
Whenever they use Blue Eyes on FAM, it’s either because it is historically accurate (“Fly Me to the Moon” being the non-official song of the Apollo program), or it is played in scenes that develop Ed Baldwin’s (Joel Kinnaman) character, the exact kind of All American Man that would worship Sinatra. They actually managed to breathe new life in what has to be the most overused son in media history: “Back in Black,” when Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) returns to the Moon after a decade. Unlike most shows or movies, For All Mankind uses almost the entirety of a song to a scene or montage, not just the most popular fragments, achieving the ultimate goal of a well-executed needle-drop: Creating a story within the story. Their greatest achievement: The montage set CCR’s “Someday Never Comes” from season one, episode seven. Not the most obscure track, but the standout of Creedence’s least-beloved album. It’s a moment that hits you like… oh. Terrible choice of words.
There is one saving grace: The Morning Show has not misused Taylor Swift. Yet.
Alberto Cox seriously dreads how The Morning Show will cover the Israel-Gaza war, which will obviously be the main news story in season four.