When Apple TV+ announced their great streaming venture, a murderer's row of talent was attached, including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, M. Night Shyamalan, and Oprah. They also had the stars of their crown-jewel original dramatic series on hand to sell the massive star power they were bringing to the table: Jennifer Aniston, Reese Withserpoon, and Steve Carell were the A-list triumvirate which would headline The Morning Show. And in turn, The Morning Show would put Apple TV+ on the map.
More than a month into the Apple TV+ launch, the results are relatively mixed. The Morning Show is not Mad Men or The Sopranos, not in terms of critical support or rabid audience chatter. But viewers do seem to be watching (judging by anecdotal social-media observance, which we all know is the one true metric). What they're watching is a show that often seems to be at war with itself. Very simply, The Morning Show tells a similar-to-real-life story about a fictional morning show rocked by revelations that its long-tenured co-host, Mitch Kessler (Carell), had been engaging in sexual misconduct for years. So he's out, leaving his longtime on-air co-host, Alex Levy (Aniston) holding the bag. In an effort to save her job from the circling sharks — as well as tuck a professional rival underneath her own cloak — Alex announces in public that her new co-host will be viral news-reporting sensation Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon). The central problem of The Morning Show is that it's being pulled in too many directions by its lead characters. Trying to balance Alex's dead-eyed determination to save her job with Bradley's quasi-innocent newcomer would be interesting, except that applecart keeps getting tipped over by the story's frequent sojourns to Mitch's story, which doesn't seem to know the angle it's taking on #MeToo from scene to scene.
Enter Crudup, who's playing what should be the least sympathetic character of all: Cory Ellison, the network entertainment executive who's been brought over to the news division to get ratings up. He's everything you'd expect out of such a character: amoral, obnoxious, sleazy, double-dealing, and willing to sell out anyone and anything to drive those ratings up. There's a character like this in any series about behind-the-scenes TV work — Steven Weber on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Chris Messina on The Newsroom, Willam H. Macy on Sports Night, and those are just the Aaron Sorkin shows. And yet somehow, Crudup makes this character sing. (Metaphorically. Though also literally, but we'll get to that.) He imbues Cory with an arch, manic energy, as well as self-awareness about how untrustworthy and sleazy he comes across. Ever the pragmatist, Crudup's Cory seems to take the angle that it would take too much time to convince people he's anything other than what he seems, so he's decided to steer into the skid. It's a marvelous decision.
What makes it even better is that Crudup never softens Cory or makes him more lovable in any way. When a drunk Bradley boarded an elevator with him at the close of an episode a couple weeks ago, you immediately grew nervous for her, and that's because Crudup's performance, while addictively watchable, has never taken the venom out of Cory's sting. It's a quality that makes his and Aniston's mid-season duet of Sweeney Todd's "Not While I'm Around" so altogether irresistible. The layers of negotiation, gamesmanship, hatred, and begrudging respect you afford to adversaries in commerce? It's all there amid the Sondheim.
This is all part of a rather welcome renaissance for Crudup, and a realization on the part of Hollywood that his particular combination of devastating good looks (that no longer qualify as boyish) and eyes that betray something more (A survival instinct? A willingness to deceive? A kind of villainy?) can be put to very good use. Such has been the case in a variety of recent roles in films like Spotlight, Jackie, 20th Century Women, and Alien: Covenant. No two roles are alike, allowing Crudup to showcase his inarguable acting chops. The early successes of his career, from his 1998 breakout roles in the films Without Limits (as ill-fated distance runner Steve Prefontaine) and the moody western The Hi-Lo Country (for which he won a National Board of Review award for breakthrough performer) to his Tony Award-winning stage work in The Coast of Utopia, were no flukes. It seemed for a moment, right around the release of Almost Famous, that he might make the jump to leading man. But it didn't happen. The roles got smaller as the 2000s rolled into the 2010s. The circumstances of his personal life — leaving his wife, Mary Louise Parker, then 7-months-pregnant, for Claire Danes — didn't exactly bathe him in a glowing light. Hell, even that MasterCard voice-over gig went away.
Yet, to see Crudup back with a series of roles that truly suit him has been a real treat. Others seem to agree, as he was just nominated for Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Awards. Whatever growing pains The Morning Show needs to work out to go from "watchable mess" to legitimately great TV, Billy Crudup is one element they don't need to worry about.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.