‘You kind of live a split life’: Morning Wars’ stars on the facade of TV
In the thrilling final moments of its first season, Morning Wars, Apple’s behind-the-cameras drama about a breakfast television program broken by a #MeToo scandal, transformed itself from fly-on-the-wall media melodrama to a full-blown polemic on sexual politics.
“The abuse of power, the corporate corruption, it has to end, we cannot accept a culture of silence,” Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) declared live on air, referring to the season-long scandal which saw the fictional breakfast show’s host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) sacked and the network deep in damage control.
Standing beside her, America’s queen of breakfast television Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) stepped up and admitted her own silent complicity in Kessler’s behaviour. “I’m as culpable as anyone in not calling out or helping to end the sexual misconduct that goes on in this f–king building,” Levy said.
With America watching at home, and the show’s sacked producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) watching on a billboard video screen in Times Square, the fictional network UBA stepped in and pulled the plug on the broadcast. And in the oldest television tradition, the season went out on a cliffhanger.
“The first season was really about not even knowing that a revolution was coming, then this revolution is there,” Witherspoon tells The Guide on the eve of the show’s second season. “Now we’re picking up the pieces post-revolution.”
When the final scenes of the first season were filmed, Aniston says, the aftermath was still an unknown. “I guess that was part of the fun,” Aniston adds. “We knew that it was a disrupting moment, but then it was, ‘What do they do? Do they get arrested? Are they in trouble? Are they going to Morning Show jail’? Anything was possible.
“Then we figured out what the lay of the land would be, and started shooting it,” Aniston says. “And in that process we realised our show somehow has to be topical. As it was with the first season, where we were ready to go and then #MeToo happened so we had to pause, go back and reincorporate that.”
To some extent Morning Wars is the story of a carefully constructed facade that is slowly cracking on the airwaves of America, a dimple-chin-perfect breakfast TV team whose private foibles now risk destroying the network’s top-rating juggernaut. But it is also a story about the disconnect between the real lives of TV personalities and the audience’s perception of them.
As actors, Witherspoon says, that disconnect is relatable. “I think as any actor, you kind of live a split life. The characters you play are not the people that you are, but sometimes they get conflated in people’s minds. [The audience] tend to think you are your most-known characters, so I think there’s a blessing in that, and then there’s also the need and desire as an artist to be more, to tell more stories in a larger spectrum of stories.”
Morning Wars makes great work of bridging that disconnect, with lingering camera shots on the perfectly framed hosts of The Morning Show, where the smiles are selling toothpaste but the eyes conceal deeper conflicts. That is largely the work of the show’s two cinematographers Michael Grady and David Lanzenberg.
“There is a lot to the way this show is shot and filmed in that there’s one version of our characters you see, and then the facade falls and we have a completely different relationship with each other,” Witherspoon says. “That’s what’s kind of delicious about the show.”
And what makes Morning Wars artistically distinct from, say, a similar show on a network like HBO or even CBS is that the streaming environment does not lean into the revenue economy of “overnight ratings”. Though both Aniston and Witherspoon are executive producers on the show, they have kept the conversations that traditionally result from that kind of data – What does the audience like? And what does the audience not like? – off the table.
“I feel like the unknown quantity at streamers is we don’t really know what a lot of the numbers and the metrics are, so we’re not really picking an audience to speak to, or picking out a character that’s popular in the same way that, say, a broadcast television show would be,” Witherspoon says.
Which is not to say that Apple itself does not have that kind of layered analysis, but that – unusually for television – those metrics are not extrapolated into notes for the producers and cast. “Someone does [know],” Aniston says, but adds firmly: “We don’t want to know.”
The show’s writer Kerry Ehrin and director Mimi Leder are also playing on the inherent likeability of the actors – particularly Aniston, Witherspoon and Carell, who are all staples of likeable, family-friendly comedies – and then daring to mesh them with complex and almost unlikeable fictional alter-egos.
“Steve Carell really creates so much empathy for a character that has done so much wrong,” Witherspoon says. “You still see him as human because Steve is one of the great screen personalities.” Adds Aniston: “He’s earned so much goodwill on television and film, there are very few actors who could have played that part and gotten away with people’s hearts almost breaking.”
And despite their abrasive start, the audience is cheering for Alex and Bradley, thrown together by misogynistic network politics in the hope they would tear each other apart, but who have instead found an unlikely friendship and empowered themselves by holding each other up. (Most of the time.)
Whether that lies in the richness of the writing, or more instinctively because the audience knows the two actresses from a relationship embedded deeply in popular culture – that they played sisters Rachel and Jill Green on Friends – is difficult to discern.
“It could be a combination of both, honestly,” says Aniston. “It depends on who’s projecting what onto who, you know? There could be people that have known Reese and I since we were kids playing sisters, it’s also the material and at times you can just want characters to come together.”
Whatever the reason, the net effect is the same: that while these two women began their working relationship on hostile ground – Alex the reigning queen of American breakfast television and Bradley the rookie TV rule-breaker who was brought in to destabilise her – the dynamic has slowly shifted them into a parallel course.
“With Bradley and Alex, they’ve really maintained this sort of, like, I love you, I don’t know why, but I really do, and I don’t know how to make you fit,” adds Aniston. “There is something inherent there. And whatever reason they were brought into each other’s life, the connection is real.
“There’s moments when you just see them want to just fall into each other’s arms, and other moments where you just see them wanting to rip each other’s head hair out,” says Aniston. “It’s like, what are you and why do you affect me like this? They affect each other so much, which means they care about each other so much for whatever reason. I’m not exactly sure why.”
“Like sisters,” chimes in Witherspoon.
Morning Wars (season 2) is on Apple TV+ from Friday, September 17.