February 24, 2020

Scandal, Politics and #MeToo on ‘The Morning Show’

Jennifer Aniston and Reese Weatherspoon in “The Morning Show.” Photo courtesy of AppleTV+

A beloved celebrity is fired amid shocking sexual misconduct allegations. It’s an all too familiar headline in the post-#MeToo world, but this time it’s fiction — a seismic event that sets “The Morning Show” in motion. 

Launching on Nov. 1, the Apple TV+ series takes viewers behind the scenes of a morning television news show. Steve Carell, who plays the beloved male anchor, is accused of rape by a staff member, and the show is thrown into chaos. 

The film highlights power struggles and gender politics as it focuses on two women: veteran anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and reporter Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a hotheaded newcomer. The pair deal with professional and personal crises and a variety of reprehensible male behavior. 

Mimi Leder, who directed 2018’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg drama “On the Basis of Sex,” signed on to direct and executive produce the series before there was a script. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Network,’ ‘Broadcast News,’ ‘Larry Sanders,’ ” Leder told the Journal. “I’ve always been intrigued with what happens behind the scenes when you pull back the curtain. Jen [Aniston] and I have wanted to work together for a long time, and here was our opportunity. I took a leap of faith.”

Drawing inspiration from CNN reporter Brian Stelter’s 2013 book “Top of the Morning,” “The Morning Show,” written by Kerry Ehrin, is an amalgamation of stories that we’ve heard about, researched, and people we’ve worked with, but it is not based on any one character in real life,” Leder said. “It’s rooted in life experiences and reflective of the current news and societal shifts, but it’s a work of fiction. It shines a light on real issues in today’s workplace, and talks about the shifting power dynamics.”

She added, “There’s a new playbook that’s being written in real time in workplaces all across the country for equal pay and equal treatment and safer, less toxic working environments. Our show has a conversation about the complexities of power. It explores how we used to look the other way, normalizing bad behavior, and how we’re all capable of participating in the abuse of power. Not anymore. It’s a real snapshot of where we are at this moment in history, examining the shifting culture. I think it’s going to be provocative and controversial and satisfying and unsettling all at the same time.”

Bringing the morning news milieu to life accurately and with the right pitch were Leder’s main concerns. “Our challenges were to keep it grounded, get it right and tell the most authentic story we could tell in a real way,” she said. “This is a drama and a very dark comedy so it’s a very fine line.” 

For research, Leder said she and her team visited the sets of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “The Today Show.” “We had a former director for one of the shows as a tech adviser who made sure we got the control room [scenes] right.”

“Our show has a conversation about the complexities of power. It explores how we used to look the other way, normalizing bad behavior, and how we’re all capable of participating in the abuse of power. Not anymore.”

 — Mimi Leder

Leder praised Ehrin’s writing and the cast, in particular Aniston and Witherspoon, who are central to the story she describes as “a character study about two incredible women who collide in this workplace at very different times in their lives and careers. Alex is on a very professional plateau and Bradley is hungry to make her mark,” she said. “They have very different versions of authenticity and two very different approaches to their jobs. They’re both tired of people controlling their destinies and undermining their abilities and they intersect at this very interesting moment.”

Alex Levy is Jewish, or half-Jewish, Leder said, but “we haven’t explored or said anything about her Jewish background” in the first season. “The Morning Show” was ordered for two seasons, and the second will begin shooting in early 2020. When she finishes working on it, Leder, whose mother survived four concentration camps and whose father, an Army medic, helped liberate Jews at Buchenwald and became a Hollywood producer, plans to focus on making a film about her family. 

She sees some similarities between her “Morning Show” heroines and her previous film’s subject, Ginsburg: They’re women who stand up for equality, whether it’s in the courtroom or in the workplace. 

“I think ‘The Morning Show’ is and will be empowering to many,” she said. “I’d like audiences to take away that every person has a voice and should use that voice. It’s a show that people can dig their teeth into and fall in love with these complicated characters even though they’re sometimes hard to love.”

Leder is glad that she got involved. “It was really great, juicy material to work on and I loved working with these actors, from the stars to the day players,” she said. “It was an amazing group of people in front of and behind the camera. I’m spoiled for life.”

“The Morning Show” begins streaming on Nov. 1 on Apple TV+.