'Morning Show' Boss on the "Seismic Earthquake" That Sets Up the Apple TV+ Drama

"We took people through deep moral waters and didn’t give them a compass," showrunner Kerry Ehrin tells The Hollywood Reporter of the Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon series after the three-episode premiere.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in Apple's 'Morning Show'

[This story contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Apple's The Morning Show.]

The Morning Show has been upended by the #MeToo movement by the end of the Apple drama's three-episode premiere.

In an all-too-familiar scenario, Apple TV+'s star-studded flagship series begins with a morning news show being rocked by sexual misconduct claims when the male anchor is swiftly fired and the female anchor is left to deliver the news to America. Beyond that initial premise, however, it is revealed that everyone in The Morning Show's orbit has an agenda.

Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) has been terminated from his beloved post as longtime Morning Show anchor after multiple allegations and, instead of putting out a statement and going away quietly, he is vowing to fight back. His veteran co-host, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) champions a new star reporter Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) to take over his seat, but only because she sees it as a power move over the male bosses — network boss Fred Mickland (Tom Irwin) and new exec Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) — who had been planning to fire her because she has passed her "sell-by date." Bradley is seizing a coveted career opportunity, but she isn't going to play the game set by her network, her bosses or her co-host. 

"When Alex announces Bradley, it’s not like she is thinking in her head that this is a good plan. She makes that decision at the end of the second episode out of total fury," showrunner Kerry Ehrin tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Alex is thinking, 'Fuck Cory Ellison. Fuck Fred Mickland. I’m going to just fuck them right now because I can, and I have the power to do this and — what are they going to do about it? And they’re going to fire me anyway. So, fuck ‘em.' She makes this decision out of this rage that’s in her because she’s so sick of being marginalized and not valued. And then she has to live with the consequences of that moment. Sometimes it feels great to do a crazy thing or say what you feel, but then you have to live with the consequences. And Bradley is the consequence. Alex has to make it look like this was a good idea. And all of that is what was actually fun about writing the story."

Below, Ehrin talks to THR about the "seismic earthquake" that sums up the trio of episodes and how the introductory stories set up a timely season set to explore redemption, revenge, rage, rising up and the "complexity of the world right now that we live in and how we’re all trying to navigate our way through it."

When speaking on The Hollywood Reporter's TV's Top 5 podcast, you said one note Apple had for you was to edit down a script that had 57 "fucks" to make the number 45. Your cast also said all the Apple products really worked, from the Morning Show office computers to the Apple News breaking news alerts. What are some of the other perks to being an Apple show?

There is no employee discount! (Laughs.) They’ve been really, really good partners. Not just as a network, but as people. As human beings they’ve been there for me and I genuinely appreciate that because this was a hard thing to put together, especially under the circumstances. It was a lot of passion and care and heart that went into it from everyone involved. We all love it and we’re really proud of it. It felt very familial to be at Apple, so I have nothing but glowing things to say about them.

These first three episodes set up the rest of the season. What did you want to accomplish with the three-part premiere and did you know from the start that Apple planned to release them as a trio?

I really wanted to tell the story of how Bradley wound up in the chair. That was the goal of the first three, and I did know they were going to release them together. I also wanted to establish the tone. I wanted to create a tone where we took people through deep moral waters and didn’t give them a compass. Didn’t tell them: Here’s how you have to feel or think. I wanted people to get in it and start to draw their own conclusions, and start to wonder about, who was who? Who was up front? Who was duplicitous? Just sort of drop you in it, like you just started working in that office. 

At this point, is Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) trying to seek redemption or revenge, and is that a big theme you explore as the episodes go?

One hundred percent. He as a character is angry and feels attacked, and does not feel like he is this monster. He doesn’t feel like he deserves how he got fired. And I think that’s exactly what he’s looking for — both redemption and revenge. One of the things that I do is write characters that are full of internal contradictions. All the characters have a lot of internal contradictions in this show, as humans do. You can be the nicest person in the world in one second and then in another second be horrible.

One of the most pivotal scenes is Alex Levy’s (Jennifer Aniston) on-camera interview with Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) in the premiere. By the end of episode three, Bradley has been introduced as a truth-teller and Alex is confronted with being truthful for maybe the first time in her career. They are competitive, but they don't tear each other down. How important was it to you to subvert that female trope from the get-go, even in such a high-stakes environment?

I brought it up in my first meeting with Apple because I was really intrigued to write about a sophisticated, complex, female work relationship. Of course we are competitive! It’s normal. I have dear friends who I’ve had pilots in contention with — every year! Of course you support them, and of course you want your own pilot picked up. (Laughs.) There was a book about growing up as a woman, as a girl. And it was something about how we ask women to run as fast as they can, but on ice. About how being competitive makes you bad, or not always putting the other person first makes you bad. It doesn’t. We’re supposed to be competitive, we’re supposed to be the best we can and want things and want success. It doesn’t mean that you’re bitches or horrible to each other. I wanted to express the complication of that. 

Bradley and Alex lean into complex emotions, including anger and rage. You've said Reese Witherspoon had input in showing Bradley’s anger. Can you talk about developing that character and upending the “angry woman” stereotype?

The character that I originally developed in the first draft was a little more internal. The rage existed, but she was more of an observer and she was a little more guarded. Reese wanted to break that open and bring out the McEnroe of her (laughs). That just seemed like a really fun idea. Erica Lipez and I had written the first three scripts, and we did a quick burn through re-gauging that character and it was a fun revision. I think it brought out a very cool side of the character.

Bradley and Alex also represent different waves of feminism. What was Jennifer Aniston and Witherspoon's hands-on approach like when it came to shaping who they wanted to play? And how much of your real-life experiences seeped into this post-#MeToo story?

So much. That was actually one of the joys of it — just be able to say this shit. (Laughs.) I have a decades-wan reserve of it. So, that was really liberating. And to be fair, those characters are so much the thrust of everything that they do become story and theme, and [their relationship] becomes all of it. We talked about every single thing. As the scripts came out, we would go through them.

You said Mitch isn’t exclusively based on Matt Lauer. The ousted Today anchor and Mitch share a similar charm of “America’s dad,” a veneer that Morning Show breaks down to reveal as a charming narcissist. That parallel is now set against the backdrop of new revelations about Lauer and NBC from Ronan Farrow, making these beginning episodes extra timely. How much did the cases of Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose (ousted from CBS This Morning) influence Mitch?

Before anyone talked to me about any specifics that they were looking for in the show, they really were saying, "We have this premise, what do you think and where would you go?" It was a very general conversation. I had not actually watched a ton of morning TV since my kids were born, and since I work 24 hours a day. My brain just went right to that. Morning news — sexual misconduct. So in that sense, it’s very connected. But in an actual character sense, it isn’t at all.

You pull the curtain back by following Mitch and showing his perspective. What were the conversations like about writing Mitch’s point of view and did it feel daring to present his side?

Yes, and a lot of the time it was hard to do because it isn’t anyone’s instinct. So we would have to crawl inside this person right now and perceive it through them. And that was sometimes very challenging. But at the same time, these are conversations that are happening. These are conversations you overhear — we didn’t make them up.

Desk buttons in offices have been reported as somewhat common at corporations. In The Morning Show, Mitch’s dressing room has one and Alex’s does not. Have you found that executive privilege to be reserved for men?

In the times when I knew of those buttons in executive offices, most of the executives were men. So that was my experience of it, but it had to do with the times I think. Alex doesn’t have that button. The thing about those buttons — the normal ones that executives used or use — they do not lock doors. They just allow you to close the door if you’re having a conversation that you don’t want the person down the hall to hear. For good reason, they obviously have taken on a very ominous quality. But when I knew of them, they were just a thing that executives had that was like an efficiency.

Karen Pittman’s take on that button scene was that it was her character, Mia Jordan, gaining some power back. She said it also showed Mitch's influence, even with him gone. What’s your message with that scene where Mia uses the desk button in his dressing room?

The idea of her going in there, she’s in a lot of pain and she’s facing it. She’s facing it and kind of rising above it in that moment, and pushing back.

From Mia’s relationship with Mitch to Claire’s (Bel Powley) with weather anchor Yanko (Nestor Carbonell), you show several female characters in different ranks having relationships at different levels of what’s appropriate. Is part of your long-term vision to dig into the complications of office relationships in the #MeToo era?

Yes. That is part of it. It’s wanting to look at the complexity of the world right now that we live in and how we’re all trying to navigate our way through it. To navigate through what’s right, what’s wrong. These behaviors have existed for so long and everyone has just sort of woken up.

When you tackle stories that invoke many in Hollywood and in the entertainment world, do you have hesitations or did you feel fearless to push ahead despite real-life parallels?

When I get inside a story, I just don’t think about that. I just want to tell the story. And, it was the story. You get into a place where you have no choice. That’s the story that wants to be told, and so you follow it.

Do you view season one as a package in the sense that it sets up something different for season two? (The Morning Show received a two season, 20-episode order from Apple and Ehrin is already at work on season two.)

Where we land at the end of season one is not something where you just start over with a new story. But it certainly does bleed into and inform [season two]. It really is emotionally the foundation for the series. This seismic earthquake that Alex experiences but that Bradley walks into, that this corporation is trying to get its footing after. That is what the foundation is of the storytelling. It doesn’t mean that’s every aspect of season two, but you can’t go through that as a character and in season two, have not gone through that. It affects you and informs you as a character. 

This season feels like it is set right now. If this season explores the reckoning of the #MeToo era, will next season reflect a more idealistic future to come out of this? 

To some extent, yes. I think one of the messages of the show, though, is that everything is complicated!

The Morning Show releases new episodes weekly on Fridays on Apple TV+.