the morning show

The Morning Show Was a Challenge Kerry Ehrin Couldn’t Resist

Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Mark Duplass in The Morning Show.
Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Mark Duplass in The Morning Show. Photo: Apple TV+

The production office for The Morning Show’s second season is inside a generic San Fernando Valley office building, with no signage inside or out. That’s because the Apple TV+ flagship show — which launched today with eight other offerings — features Jennifer Aniston’s return to television. And that requires a lot more security and a lot more caution than most TV shows, as showrunner Kerry Ehrin learned while filming season one. “We had a week in New York where we were trying to film some street scenes really fast, and people were walking literally into the shot with their cameras!” said Ehrin during a recent pause from the second season’s writers’ room. “It blew my mind. I didn’t know that people were capable of that kind of single-mindedness.”

Loosely inspired by CNN reporter Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, the series is set in the world of a morning infotainment show rocked by the firing of beloved anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) over murky sexual-harassment allegations. But the focus of the story is how Mitch’s firing affects his co-anchor and partner of 15 years, Alex Levy (Aniston), who, it turns out, the network has been trying to dump in hopes of landing a younger, fresher face. That new person is Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), a broadcast reporter who goes viral when she’s filmed at a coal mine yelling at and shoving a belligerent protester. After Bradley is invited to an interview on The Morning Show with Alex, their onscreen fireworks excite the network president and he sets about hiring Bradley as a correspondent. But in a bold power move of her own, Alex shocks everyone by announcing at a public event that Bradley will be her new co-host.

Ehrin, who has a long career in television working on shows such as Boston Legal, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and most recently Bates Motel, didn’t create The Morning Show. Apple approached her after firing its creator and former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jay Carson over creative differences, and offered her the job after she pitched reimagining the series squarely in the Me Too era. But it wasn’t an easy sell. Apple needed Ehrin to start from scratch, which meant fast-tracking the writing of a new pilot in April 2018 and beginning production on the entire season in November 2018. She turned down the job twice.

“I turned it down twice because I knew what I was getting into,” Ehrin said. “It was launching Apple’s streaming service and two huge stars and a new studio. There was a lot riding on it. So, of course, you’re gonna think really long and hard about stepping into something like that.”

Eventually, she decided to go for it. But even though Ehrin created a new story for the pilot and developed and wrote the rest of the series with a team of writers, the Writers Guild awarded Carson the “created by” credit in an arbitration proceeding. Ehrin was granted “developed by” credit and serves as an executive producer and showrunner. In an hour-long interview with Vulture in her inconspicuous Valley office, Ehrin confessed her insecurities about taking on The Morning Show, working with Aniston and Witherspoon, and why exploring such difficult themes proved irresistible.

From what I’ve read, Apple wanted to start over because of the Me Too uprising. Is that what executives told you?
You know, it’s weird how the history of these things falls out. I personally don’t remember that conversation. I remember it more like, “What would you do with it?” It was really like, “What do you think about this? Where would you go?” It was about writing about high-level professional women in a very high-stakes world. And I was just really drawn to that because I’d worked in entertainment for so long on all different levels. I had just finished my first showrunning experience, as showrunner on Bates Motel, which I co-created with Carlton Cuse, who was wonderfully supportive, and I felt I had a lot to say on that subject of being a professional woman in a high-stakes world. It was right there on the surface. And for Me Too, I didn’t have to dig too hard for story lines about that after 30 years in this industry. It was my life.

Matt Lauer was fired from Today in November 2017. You were having these conversations the following April?
Yes, in my mind I had Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Bill O’Reilly. That was all associated in my brain. I was very interested in writing about a male-female partnership, where the guy gets fired and that lands on her. Her life after that, her emotional life after that, was interesting to me because I’ve worked with a lot of guys in my career. I’ve been very close to a lot of male colleagues — not weirdly close, but you get close to people that you’re doing this kind of intense creative work with. You’re under a lot of pressure.

Did you use Jay Carson’s script as a guideline?
I did not read his script until they went into arbitration. I didn’t want to read it because I didn’t want it in my head. I knew I had to write quickly, and when you have something in your head that is perhaps not working, it can really gum you up for weeks. But, no, Apple didn’t have the characters drawn up. I was told very little. I didn’t work from the previous writer’s script. I didn’t have a pilot. It was really terrifying when I think about it! [Laughs.]

Did you meet with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon before you took the job? I’m wondering if that helped persuade you.
I had very brief meetings with them. It was like an airy conversation where you’re all on the same page. I had such a good feeling from them about their passion about wanting to do it. You know, they’re very charming.

They’re executive producers in every sense of the word, right? It’s not just a vanity title. Have you worked with actors that closely as collaborators before?
They are the real deal. I worked very closely with Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga on Bates Motel. It’s something I really enjoy. When you think about what writing is, if you think of it as self-expression, it’s like the ultimate dissolving of isolation because you’re pulling other people into your emotional experience. And you’re doing it with them. That’s very fun, you know?

But the pilot you wrote alone.
I wrote that very quickly in my bedroom in three weeks. [Laughs.] It was scary. Sometimes I was on the floor crying, but for the most part, I just kept going. By the end of that year, it was a lot of stress.

How do you feel about it now?
I’m super proud of it. Especially under the circumstances with which we pulled it together, I’m incredibly proud of it.

In the past few years, producers and creators have raved about working with streaming platforms because of all the creative freedom they get. What was your experience at Apple?
No one believes this when I say it, but they were great. They did not constrain me. When I read in the paper the thing about them being super invasive and that they wanted everything G-rated, I was like, Who is that? That was not my experience with them. They had fairly minimal notes, really.

Bates Motel was certainly a step up in freedom from broadcast, but even then we had a limit. You couldn’t say “fuck,” you could say this many “damns.” There were many a day where I felt it was an added burden on trying to write a story, so I felt really at home in a freer environment.

Were you required to place Apple products in scenes?
Oh, they didn’t ask for that at all.

Did you research morning shows?
I didn’t have time to. That was the thing — there was no time.

Did you read Brian Stelter’s book?
I did read Brian’s book. In a lot of ways, that really set the tone of what I was shooting for, which is this combination of super high-stakes corporate financial and really asinine high-school behavior. And then we had this great researcher who went to New York and he studied the studios. We had several people consulting who had directed or been producers on morning shows. We had a constant army of people double-checking it, because the technical aspect of how it’s made is very complicated. I just stuck to the stories I wanted to tell and didn’t worry too much about what happens in the studio because it was something I didn’t have time to learn and study myself.

You had three weeks to create this entire world. Who came to you first in terms of the characters?
The two female characters were different aspects of myself. Alex is a lot of wish fulfillment of things you wish you could say, being a woman in business. [Laughs.] Bradley has more a psychological blueprint that is a little more similar to me. She’s just always trying to blow herself up, which in my early life, I did that a little bit. She’s both a caretaker and has a fierce rage. And she doesn’t buy into the bullshit story of anything. She gets flown to New York, she’s on the balcony and feels that it’s beautiful, but then she’s like, “Fuck you.” [Laughs.]

In the third episode, Jennifer Aniston’s character delivers this great speech to a room full of men about she’s in control, but they’re all oblivious because they think they’re the rightful owners of power. That’s definitely something all women have experienced in the workplace and wish we could articulate.
That is definitely from my life — the concept that you spend so much of your time protecting egos as a woman in the world. The thing is, I’ve worked with such incredibly great, nice men. But I’ve spent a lot of time protecting egos, especially in the first half of my career. That’s where that feeling comes from: You don’t get it. You don’t get the work that is being done around you all the time. It’s a lot of fucking work, man.

What about Steve Carell’s character, Mitch? How did you create him?
He’s something I’ve always been envious of in a lot of guys, that confidence that you can’t be wrong. [Laughs.] He really did not have a sense that he was doing something wrong. In his head, it was consensual and all the people around him supported him. He lived in this bubble of being protected. It’s like a spoiled child. Which isn’t to say he wasn’t responsible. He’s an adult man and he should have been. But it’s part of how corporate cultures protect talent and also the hubris of men. It was those two things.

We don’t learn the nature of the allegations against Mitch in the first three episodes, but we get a clear sense of how he views himself. Will we ever learn what exactly Mitch is accused of?
Yes, you will. The whole season is really an unpeeling of an onion. I think what’s interesting is that a lot of these guys are very charming and do elicit sympathy. Certainly, in my adult life, Me Too is the most impactful movement. It has so changed the way business is being done, the way the industry is operating. I can’t remember in my lifetime a time when suddenly everybody was looking at their own behavior. Everybody, you know? That’s huge. That’s just fucking huge.

How is it different now in the business world?
It’s made people reevaluate the role of women, respecting women more, being way more careful about the things that perhaps at the time seem harmless but that are ultimately downgrading. All of that stuff is being reevaluated and reassessed. What is appropriate? What is right? What is fair? How do I handle this? Combined with Time’s Up, making it mandatory that you hire more women and that you give more people chances that you normally wouldn’t. It was a white dude’s world and that has definitely changed. And it’s big.

I hear you that there have been changes in the industry, but I also still hear people on sets saying things like, “Sorry, I can’t give you a hug because you can’t hug anyone anymore.”
I hear stuff like that all the time. And then there’s a lot of guys who are like, “Well, that isn’t me. Why is this all falling on my head?” There are so many shades to it that guys aren’t aware of. That’s what is really interesting. It’s all getting deconstructed.

In that scene that I mentioned, Mitch talks about the two phases of Me Too: The first was about the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins of the world, but he says the second phase targets men like himself. He’s arguing it’s not fair for everyone to all get lumped together.
That’s his opinion. But we don’t know yet who he is. At this point in the show, we’re still in his own version of it.

You have a two-season commitment from Apple. Will Steve Carell be in the second season? It’s been reported that he’s not.
We hope for him to be. Mitch is part of the storytelling for the season. Schedules are complicated, but we hope to make it work with Steve.

The way things are set up, it seems like Alex and Bradley are going to hate each other. The network exec played by Billy Crudup certainly wants that. But that’s not really what you’re doing. Despite the circumstances, it feels like they are becoming a team.
We wanted to tell a story about two professional women and the complications of those relationships, where it wasn’t just, we’re rivals or we’re best friends. How do you make this situation work? When Alex announces Bradley as the co-host, she’s grabbing the power. It’s so smart. She fucks them in that moment. It’s definitely a risk, but there was no downside because she was getting fired anyway. It was a fury that came out of her. And that’s what is fun about the following episodes — her having to live with the consequences of that decision.

The Morning Show Was a Challenge Kerry Ehrin Couldn’t Resist