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In the 13 days before The Morning Show shut down production on season two amid the pandemic, the cast and crew of the Apple TV+ flagship drama felt like everyone else: They were on edge. In that time period, the acclaimed broadcast news drama had filmed two episodes of a season that viewers would never see. But, back in early March of 2020, no one could predict that far ahead.
“We were scared,” Mimi Leder, director and executive producer, recalls to The Hollywood Reporter about those days working on what she calls the first iteration of season two. “We were shooting and Purell bottles kept showing up. We were writing on the call sheet, ‘If you are sick, do not come in; we will pay you’ — because people in our business go to work no matter what. When we shut down, we wanted to shut down. We didn’t know really when we would start again.”
Star Reese Witherspoon, who co-produces the series through her Hello Sunshine banner, recalls that feeling of the unknown in the first few months of lockdown. “We went through all of the things that everybody went through. The first few weeks were so frightening and really, nobody was talking about anything work-related,” she tells THR. “But it is sort of fascinating that our first year we had to pivot and then our second year, pivot again.”
When Kerry Ehrin took over as showrunner for the The Morning Show back in 2018, she initiated a rewrite of the launch season so the media show could tackle the exploding #MeToo movement front and center; the starring male anchor on their fictional morning show (played by Steve Carell, who returns in season two) gets accused of sexual misconduct and assault and the fallout impacts everyone, especially his on-air partner Alex Levy, played by Jennifer Aniston (who also produces through her banner, Echo Films). When returning to the helm for season two, Ehrin says she was one day into quarantine when she got on the phone with her producing partners at Apple and studio Media Res to set things in motion, once again, for a retooling.
“It was a fait accompli in the sense that we’re doing a story about the news and we can’t totally avoid the biggest news story going on in the world!” Ehrin relives in conversation with THR. “So, I had to rethink the shape of what I was doing.”
In one lucky twist for Ehrin, the theme of the new season, and the storylines she had planned to tell in its at least two-season arc (The Morning Show had been ordered straight to series with a 20-episode, two season order), fit inside the overarching backdrop of the looming pandemic.
“The first season was very much about turning over the rock and seeing all the bugs underneath at this corporation,” says Ehrin, referencing the show’s fictional UBA network (which, appropriately, aims to enter the streaming space with UBA+ in season two). “And the second season was about, now that the bugs are all out in the light, what do we do? How do we change things? People looking at themselves. That was always my intention. And it fit in really nicely with this idea of: How did we as a country sort of miss COVID coming?”
The second season, which begins a weekly rollout Sept. 17, opens with stunning aerial shots of the empty New York City streets, the once-hustling and bustling city left strangely silent in the early days of lockdown. Leder, who recalls the collective thinking of, “Fuck, what is happening?” at the time, decided to act fast by getting a drone unit into the city to film the abandoned streets.
“We had no idea what we were going to use them for; there wasn’t a script that dictated it. We did it and then we put it in the script and started the show,” says Leder of the season’s kickoff message of the pandemic-era visuals set to the tune of “Return to Me.” “It was important to start the show there, because we know where we’re headed. It’s eerie as hell. And putting the Dean Martin song to it, I thought, was kind of a love letter to New York: ‘Return to me; please come back. Let the world come back.'”
The Morning Show then flashes back to three months earlier, with star anchor Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon) and her new on-air partner (played by Hasan Minhaj) ringing in 2020 from a bustling Times Square. The episode — which is filled with all sorts of drama for the cast as they continue to address the fallout from the season one finale, which took place nine months earlier in the show’s timeline — ends with the sound of a stranger’s sneeze, and that sense of impending dread lingers as the season begins to capture the time period from January to March of 2020 that viewers will remember all too well.
“It was my very first instinct, to tell the time leading up [to the pandemic],” says Ehrin. “I had said, either we do the three months leading up to lockdown or we do, ‘It’s all over now!’ and the world is trying to scramble back. After doing some research, I just fell in love with the idea of doing those three months and seeing it slowly creep up — and how we just kept ignoring it, [which] I thought was so human, I guess, and kind of sad, from close-up, and kind of ridiculous from far away.”
Case in point: when Bradley, who now sports Witherspoon’s recognizable blond look instead of her first-season brunette wig (a nod to her desire to fit in, says the actress: “She’s wearing the clothes and she’s singing and dancing. It is not her personality at all”), puts on her light, on-air persona to joke about the concept of social distancing. “Social distancing? My family has been social distancing for years!” she says to laughs in a later scene that is sure to make those watching at home now cringe in familiar recognition.
“January to March before the lockdown was a fascinating time for everybody, because I think we were all so busy making plans and thinking about other things and distracted in our everyday lives, that there was so much happening internationally; we weren’t necessarily paying attention,” says Witherspoon of orbiting around the fast-paced 24-hour news cycle. “That’s the responsibility of media, but we go back to broadcast journalism and it’s really hard to get people’s attention,” she adds. “It’s hard to get people’s ears and eyes, and we really talk about that in the show.”
In The Morning Show, one anchor gets sent to Wuhan, China to cover the outbreak, but he can’t get the talk show to give the story the air time that it rightfully deserves.
“People weren’t really worried about it until, suddenly, it was terrifying and in front of us,” says Ehrin of the societal interest in the story. “In talking to people in the news, so many things were going on. The impeachment was happening; the Democratic primary and the debates were happening. There was so much news in the country that was really riveting. COVID was international news; it was something that was happening somewhere else. And I think it was just this ticking bomb under the table and then it blew up.”
She continues, “I know I was surprised at the intensity of how it happened so quickly. A week before, we were all on the set filming — no masks. We started not hugging, I do remember that. And then a week later, boom, we closed down and everybody went home. When we went back on the set months later, things were left exactly how they were — down to a coffee cup. It was really a ghost town. It was dramatic.”
That real-life drama of 2020’s biggest news stories all readying to bubble to the surface — the coronavirus pandemic, the political chaos around the 2020 presidential election and the racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd — informs the drama happening within The Morning Show‘s ensemble. From the anchors (Desean Terry, Nestor Carbonell and newcomer Julianna Margulies) and show producers (Karen Pittman and Mark Duplass) all the way up to the executives at the network (Billy Crudup and newcomer Greta Lee, along with Holland Taylor), the entire Morning Show team is facing a crisis — the wheels of change were set in motion when the corporate toxicity was laid bare at the end of season one, but now that they need to keep turning that wheel, what does change really look like?
“I talked a lot to Desean and to Karen this year about all of their scenes and we worked on them together,” says Ehrin of meaningful behind-the-scenes conversations about race with the actors and writers. “I really wanted to have it be as real as it could be. And not just sugarcoat it, not just put a big bow on it at the end; but really have a conversation about the situation of race in a big company that has mostly been run by white men, and some white women.”
Leder describes the topical season as exploring a tidal wave on the horizon. “Kerry felt that it was really important to start the series three months before that tidal wave; before George Floyd was murdered, before the revolution, before Black Lives Matter, because we knew that world up until then and we didn’t know when we were going to be airing,” she says. “We didn’t know when we were going to be shooting. But we knew that the writers could write during that time that story that we knew. If last season was about the fallout of the #MeToo movement and the repercussions, this season is about identity. We knew we wanted to tackle race and sexuality and touch on the cancel culture of today, and go on that journey with our characters.”
For veteran anchor Alex (Aniston), who viewers will learn exited her post after the fallout, she is faced with the idea of returning to help effect the change she sparked when Cory Ellison (Crudup) pays her a visit during her early retirement in the first episode. After acknowledging her complicity surrounding Mitch’s behavior in season one, Alex’s journey of self-reflection deepens this time around. Ehrin sums up the rocky road ahead as “telling the whole story of getting Alex back to a place where she has her feet under her.”
Adds Ehrin of the complexities tackled in season two, “There is a lot happening right now. It’s a rich world in terms of human behavior and things people are trying to accomplish.”
The Morning Show‘s 10-episode second season releases weekly on Fridays on Apple TV+.
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