Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston on How #MeToo Empowered Apple’s ‘Morning Show’: “The Entire System Changed”
The Morning Show was designed to be Apple TV+’s flagship drama ever since a must-have pitch was made to brand-new Apple execs Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg in June 2017.
“Jen and Reese and layers and subtext and amazing storytelling, we have to have it. How do we buy it?” Erlicht recalled of the question he asked services chief Eddy Cue when speaking to a crowd of 1,500 at Monday’s New York City premiere for The Morning Show, which doubled as the Big Apple’s welcoming of the tech giant’s Nov. 1 streaming service. “The negotiation was not easy,” Erlicht continued. “I’ll say, nothing about this show has been what I would describe as ‘easy.’ But the great ones never are. And that’s what The Morning Show is — a great one.”
As The Hollywood Reporter has reported, The Morning Show’s journey to the screen has certainly been a journey. After outbidding Netflix for Jennifer Aniston’s return to television, the soapy morning-show drama, which sees Aniston co-starring with fellow exec producer Reese Witherspoon, changed showrunners after the explosion of the #MeToo movement later that year. Kerry Ehrin, whose credits inclu de Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and Bates Motel, was brought in to rewrite the script and steer the show as someone who could authentically present a woman’s experience.
The show’s new leader and the explosion of the #MeToo era gave Aniston and Witherspoon the chance to truly be heard when it came to the hands-on approach they have adopted with their characters — longtime Morning Show anchor Alex Levy (Aniston), whose co-anchor (Steve Carell) has just been terminated over sexual misconduct allegations, and rising star reporter Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) — and the show overall.
“We had to deal with this idea that the entire system changed,” Witherspoon tells THR when speaking at the NYC premiere at Lincoln Center. “People who were in power were getting fired and then people who were sort of next in line, who never thought that they would have power, were suddenly empowered. And I think that’s happening in corporations all over America where people are figuring out what their new role is.”
Aniston describes her and Witherspoon coming together to help steer this vision as an exciting point in both of their careers. “We’ve known each other throughout the years,” Aniston says of the time period between Witherspoon’s Friends cameo (as Rachel Green’s spoiled sister) to now. “It was wonderful to see, first of all, all that she has done over the years and then to meet where we have now come, after all that we have done together — it was really just exciting.”
The Morning Show is a production collaboration between Aniston’s Echo Films banner, Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and Michael Ellenberg of Media Res. Witherspoon says, “We’re kind of in a new place in our careers where we’re actually getting to produce this material and get a lot of creative input, and we have a lot of experience.” Aniston finishes her sentence, “And be heard and taken seriously, as that’s what the goal is.”
Aniston and Witherspoon were joined by their cast and crew when Apple execs Tim Cook, Cue, Erlicht and Van Amburg screened the first two episodes of the 10-episode first season (The Morning Show has a two-season, 20-episode order) for an NYC-media heavy crowd Monday. After taking over Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza with a star-studded black carpet reminiscent of an Apple Store, the soiree continued inside David Geffen Hall where attendees toasted the highly anticipated show (which has been met with lukewarm reviews). On Nov. 1 when Apple TV+ makes its debut, the first three episodes of The Morning Show will be available, followed by a weekly episode rollout, and the trio of episodes set up the downfall of Mitch Kessler (Carell) while navigating the rocky rise of Alex (Aniston) and Bradley (Witherspoon) as they hold onto and fight for, respectively, their livelihoods in the wake of the beloved talk show’s #MeToo scandal.
“I wanted it to be heartbreaking and funny. That was really the goal in terms of tone,” Ehrin tells THR of what she set out to accomplish from the get-go. “I wanted it to be a fun destination, even though it was telling, sometimes, sad or dark stories. I wanted it to be a place that people wanted to come to because the characters are so real and engaging, and they’re people you want to be with.”
Much of the cast in attendance echoed the show’s nuanced portrayal of the post-#MeToo era, particularly in the many female characters who are introduced at different stages of the Morning Show’s corporate ladder.
Bel Powley describes her production assistant Claire Conway as a third-wave feminist, positioning her between Aniston and Witherspoon’s characters. “Over the course of the series, we realize that she’s dealing with the repercussions of #MeToo in a different light than we’ve seen before,” she tells THR of Claire having a secret relationship with the show’s more seasoned weather anchor (played by Nestor Carbonell). “She’s dealing with the way people are viewing her relationship in the light of what’s happening with Mitch Kessler. It’s showing this interesting, gray area where it’s a young person who has their own agency who is having to deal with people viewing her relationship in a different light.”
Victoria Tate plays the overworked assistant to Morning Show’s executive producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) and the two enjoy a sarcastic relationship until Mitch’s actions put the corporate culture under a microscope: “She and Chip have a really comfortable relationship where they tease each. Instead of saying, ‘Thank you very much,’ they say, ‘Fuck you very much.’ It’s not going to be so OK after what’s been going on. Everyone has to get a slap on their wrist.” And Janina Gavankar describes her anchor character, Alison Namazi, as the “next generation of journalism” because of her blind ambition to use Morning Show as a stepping stone in her career. “This is not the end all, be all to the conversation on the #MeToo movement,” she says. “It is examining very complicated people who exist in this movement. This is the start of a conversation and it hopefully will bring forth much more conversation.”
One character who makes an early impression is producer Mia Jordan, who is played by Karen Pittman. Viewers will learn more about her character by the end of the third episode, and what motivated her to step up into a bigger role when Bradley arrives on the show’s set.
“In Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s producer character, obviously with Alex, but also in Mia, I’m so proud of how we create these nuanced character arcs,” Pittman tells THR of the specific stories surrounding those three women in particular as they navigate a patriarchal corporate culture. Adding about Mia’s road ahead, “I think there are women who are attracted to bad guys. I think there is a fine line between being involved with someone and when the power dynamic forces you into an engagement with that person. We explore all the different myriad of ways that women get undermined in the workplace.”
The Morning Show, which was developed in the wake of the ouster of Matt Lauer from the Today show, is now releasing amid new claims of the ex-anchor’s alleged sexual misconduct and accusations of how his network NBC allegedly covered up the allegations with nondisclosure agreements and secret payouts. In the wake of Ronan Farrow’s explosive book, Catch and Kill, NBC released former employees from their NDAs so victims of sexual harassment can speak freely and no longer be silenced. These current news headlines are a way of life imitating art and art imitating life when it comes to The Morning Show, which invokes both Lauer and disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein while also exploring network culpability at the top (something NBC, Fox News and CBS have all been faced with).
CNN host Brian Stelter, whose book Top of The Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV inspired the series, serves as a consulting producer on the series, where he has been able to make the fictional world of The Morning Show as true to life as possible by working with the producers in the early stages of development. “The series nails the world of morning TV and the feeling that you’re inside the studio or inside the control room. The control room looks a lot like Good Morning America,” he tells THR. “After watching the first five episodes, my biggest takeaway is that this is a show that’s not just for 1 or 2 million people — it’s meant to be for hundreds of millions of people, it’s not made to be a niche show. We only see these morning shows from the front; what they choose to put on the air at 7 a.m. We don’t see behind the scenes where the real chaos and drama is. This show lets you imagine what it’s been like behind the scenes at the real-life morning shows, including with some of the disgraced individuals that have been in the news lately. That makes it really interesting, because we have no idea what it’s been like for the men and women on these shows in their personal lives and this show starts to imagine that.”
The Morning Show also follows Mitch after his ouster and the likable Carell brings an element of humanity to a character that viewers would go into the series thinking they should hate. Of the risk of diving into that gray area, Ehrin urges, “It’s 10 episodes, so you have to watch the whole thing to see where we’re going. And I think that everyone in the story is very nuanced. Very grounded.”
And while season two, as THR reported, will move beyond Mitch, Ehrin is already thinking about the long-term potential of the series. “I’m in the writers room and we have the tentpoles of where we’re going [for season two] and then we’re just figuring out how we’re driving to those destinations,” she says. “I think it has a life in it that could go on for a while.”
The Morning Show releases its first three episodes Nov. 1 on Apple TV+. Head here for more info on the streaming service.