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A New Day Dawns - 'The Morning Show' Celebrates Gender Equality On Screen And Behind The Scenes

Posted By Kevin Perry, Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The brightest spotlights cast the longest shadows. Since its inception, the entertainment industry has harbored menace in the darkness, sometimes allowing harassment and abuse to fester in hidden corners. The Morning Show excavates these shadows to expose the sordid underbelly of mainstream media at its most volatile.

“We’re dealing with really sensitive subject matter,” explains Executive Producer Reese Witherspoon. “We wanted to take a 360-degree look at what the impact of the MeToo movement has done to the workplace, to personal lives, to the gender pay disparity conversation, to the lack of inclusion in corporate environments and representation in media.

“The news can be very binary and sometimes editorialized and pejorative,” Witherspoon continues. “By fictionalizing these stories, we didn’t have to play within boundaries.”

To unleash the spectacle appeal of The Morning Show, the creative team drew upon its nonfiction roots: namely, Brian Stelter’s book Top of the Morning. “Brian really told you all about what was happening inside the broadcast media world. Fascinating!” Witherspoon exclaims. “He did a great job of explaining why broadcast television really matters. It’s a very high-stakes world. They’re making about half a billion dollars a year in ad sales. If there’s a dip in the ratings, all those ad sales will go to another channel. It’s really cutthroat because there’s a lot of money on the line.”

Fellow Executive Producer Michael Ellenberg echoes this sentiment regarding real-life morning media. “They’re an amazing platform. They’re one of the last media in America that still tries to appeal to New York and Los Angeles and Des Moines and Mississippi. They have equal viewership, Democrats and Republicans. They’re really still trying to represent what America is, in an era when America seems to want to rip itself apart.”

In a blistering example of art imitating life, The Today Show delivered a bruising inspiration to Ellenberg when he was still a child. “When Jane Pauley was fired, there was no real public explanation offered, particularly if you were a kid. The only thing we heard was ‘She was old.’ Right? And the show went from so good to so bad. At the time, she was 39 years old. It lodged in my mind, like, what a strange world. This show was so brilliant, these people were so capable, and what could Jane Pauley have done wrong that they would willfully make the show terrible rather than keep her?”

The question lingered in Ellenberg’s mind well into his adulthood. “Every few years, a high-profile woman on these shows is put through the wringer. That’s an interesting disconnect. Are these two things related: the pressure of representing America and the way that women are treated?”

Executive Producer/Director Mimi Leder discusses a scene with
Executive Producer/star Jennifer Aniston.

After achieving phenomenal success in the film world and as a development guru at HBO, Ellenberg was able to dredge up his morbid curiosity for infotainment scandal. “I optioned Brian Stelter’s book, which I thought was an amazing introduction to the world, and then approached Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. We were all talking, and I was fortunate that they committed not only to star, but to produce with me as well, which was amazing, to be honest. I couldn’t imagine two better actresses and partners to have in this world because they’ve lived many of the ideas the show explores. It was personal for them, they saw it very clearly from the beginning, and we were really able to build it and form it together.”

The growing dream team eventually lured Executive Producer Kristin Hahn into its ranks. As Aniston’s creative partner, Hahn gravitated to the series’ myriad themes. “The show really deals with celebrity and fame, which Jen and I feel is another interesting layer. It also deals with ageism. We will get into that even deeper next season. These are all things that culturally, and in the workplace, are so relevant.”

Hahn elaborates, “It gets into the subtle dynamics between not just women and men in the workplace, which is important, but women and women in the workplace … and the abuse of power that can happen, even with pretty decent intentions.”

The weighty subject matter allows Aniston to flex her dramatic chops as Alex, the charismatic TV host teetering on the top of a crumbling empire. “She has lost herself and wants to reclaim who she is,” says Hahn. “That’s profound, and you can’t help but feel empathy for her. It humanizes the celebrity in that character. It’s a role that Jen, as an icon, can bring a lot to.”

Apple TV+ agreed, betting big on its flagship show and its superstar producing talent. “We were free,” declares Witherspoon. “The whole world was our playing field. We could discuss anything, say whatever we want and push boundaries. It really gave us an ability to define the edges of these social conversations and cultural shifts.”

But with great freedom comes creeping trepidation. “Every project that we begin on a streaming service has its own feeling of entering the wild, wild west,” Witherspoon admits. “We don’t know what the audience is gonna be, we don’t know what country they’re watching it in, we don’t know if people are gonna subscribe, we don’t know what audience we’re playing for.”

To help eradicate those unknowns, Witherspoon collaborated with her Big Little Lies cohort Ellenberg, who saw opportunity amid the chaos. “What people in my line of work hate is when you ask them, ‘Why is it done this way?’ and the answer is, ‘Because we’ve always done it.’ Everyone in Hollywood hates that answer. So when there’s a new network, they can’t say that!”

Ellenberg relished the chance to tango with a fledgling juggernaut. “Part of the reason why we went with Apple is they make cultural moments. They wanted us to be their signature show that they launched with— and the opportunity to partner with an amazing company at the beginning—that just seemed for all of us like a once-in-a-career opportunity.”

Ellenberg praises the breakneck brilliance of fellow Executive Producers Kerry Ehrin and Mimi Leder, who wrote and directed the pilot episode, respectively. “Everyone’s building the plane while they’re flying it. They’re building a network, I’m launching a new studio, we’re building my company—everything’s getting built as we’re doing it,” he says.

To extend the airline metaphor, Ellenberg marvels at Witherspoon’s multitasking prowess. “Her ability to go up to 30,000 feet and see everything from a holistic producer’s sensibility, and then when she needs to, shift down to the ground and be completely laser-focused to see it from an actor’s perspective, is unique. Like really unique in our industry. It’s exciting!”

“She’s a powerhouse and a visionary,” Ellenberg continues. “She’s a risk taker, she’s innovative, and she gravitates toward the unfamiliar. That’s inspiring! You’re desperate to work with people like that. You want to be on her side. When you’re taking on big challenges, you want to be on Reese’s team.”

Executive Producer Michael Ellenberg with Executive Producer Kristin Hahn.

Diane Sawyer enjoys a behind-the-scenes laugh with
the cast and crew of
The Morning Show.

Deflecting the kudos humbly, Witherspoon passes the praise on to Aniston. “Jen has a very discerning, detail-oriented eye. She watches cuts in a way that I don’t watch them. She combs over the set and finds details that are important to character that I would have never seen. She’s great with humor and language and building sympathy for character. Jen really sees the audience perspective.”

Ellenberg emphatically concurs. “Jen’s an experienced and formidable producer. When I was looking for inspiration for my business, I thought of Jen, who co-founded Plan B.” Extrapolating to include both of his A-list partners, Ellenberg beams, “I admire them as artists and as actors, but their producorial career had—and has—a huge influence on me. So there’s also just the opportunity to learn from them. That’s the truth.”

The Morning Show shimmers and blinds with its cavalcade of star wattage, and that was all part of Ellenberg’s plan. “We wanted the audience to engage with this world in the way they would engage with actual morning shows themselves, with stars and actors they think they already know intimately, and they feel a level of comfort with. That’s how you engage with a morning host. You’re letting family into your home every morning. Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell—these are all household names. They’re not just admired artists, but they’re really beloved people. An audience feels a level of comfort and trust.”

This trust is soon perverted by the show’s narrative. “The casting of Carell was very deliberate,” Ellenberg confides. “You admire and love and respect him—he’s funny and warm and compelling. But then, slowly but surely, you come to understand that even someone you adore so much could do something appalling. We wanted an audience to go on that journey to hopefully have a deeper, meaningful experience of this subject. By the end of the season, you will see this world in its totality.”

Witherspoon was eager to infuse an epic dose of class awareness into the brew. “One of the things we felt very strongly about was the Upstairs, Downstairs/Downton Abbey aspect of broadcast and how there is definitely a hierarchy within that world. The people who are technicians doing really intense work every single day versus on-air paid talent and executive talent that feel worlds away. We wanted to play with those two worlds colliding.”

The Oscar-winning icon holds a dark mirror up to her industry, deconstructing the pitfalls of celebrity through The Morning Shows lens. “It shows you the seduction of fame and power and influence,” says Witherspoon. “You see where you lose touch with people, with everyday life, when the draw of this big, bright world pulls you in. Your morals do get compromised in the process. You’re willing to do more just to maintain your status and your relevance,” says Witherspoon.

It was essential for the series leads to wield creative control over their own fates, argues Hahn. “If we had these two actresses, who are basically the heart and soul of this show, not have a voice in the creation of the show, that would be a travesty. It would be a paradox. That is not the world we’re living in. Right now, thankfully, we are dealing with a business that is changing, and women are not just puppets who are being controlled by their male counterparts. Jen and Reese are definitely in a unique position because of who they are and the careers they have built, to really be examples of how women as artists can have a very strong hand in the creation of their art behind the scenes, not just in front of the camera.”

With an endearing flourish, Hahn proclaims, “Jen and Reese are beautiful storytellers. They now get to tell their stories alongside wonderful producers and showrunners and the rest of the team. They bring something to this particular story that the rest of us cannot bring: understanding from the inside out what celebrity culture can do to your life, the challenges it brings when you live under a microscope, and the subtle sacrifices and struggles you go through when everyone treats you differently. Everyone.”

Those sacrifices are paying off. The Morning Show isn’t just shifting the gender paradigm; it’s detonating it. Ellenberg, for one, is happy to help light the fuse. “To be a producer in this moment in Hollywood, I think it’s the greatest time since the heyday of the studio system. This is a moment in which the newer idea, the more exotic idea, gains traction. There are more opportunities to work with new voices and previously overlooked voices.”

One of those overlooked voices, surprisingly enough, was Witherspoon’s. “I tried to be a producer 10 years ago, and it just was a different time for women,” she recalls. “I certainly felt, personally, that I wasn’t taken as seriously as I wanted to be.”

It’s a shocking admission, considering how Witherspoon has since galvanized her status as a bona fide mogul, with projects in development on almost every conceivable platform. “I’ve been really fortunate to have great partners in HBO and Apple and now Netflix and Amazon to create these worlds,” she says.

“It’s an incredible time to have women at the center of the story, but also behind the scenes in real leadership positions. It’s been really encouraging to see female showrunners coming forward and telling very dynamic stories about women. It’s important that people see women represented onscreen in the way that they really live, and it’s so gratifying to be a small part of that change.”

This change has rippled into a revolution that echoes through every compelling plot point of The Morning Show. It isn’t merely must-see TV; it’s must-heed social commentary.


-Photos courtesy of Apple TV

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