The second season of “The Morning Show,” the starry Apple TV+ series about a “Good Morning America”-style talk show, was six weeks into filming in March 2020 when everything suddenly stopped cold.
“It was a Wednesday night, and we were discussing a scene that I had to shoot the next day,” recalled Jennifer Aniston, who plays one of the co-anchors of the fictional show-within-the-show and is also an executive producer of the series. “We were getting emails saying that this big company and that big company were shutting down. And then we hear that Tom and Rita got sick” — that would be Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who contracted Covid early in the pandemic — “and all of a sudden the world is caving in on us.”
The production shut down March 11, the cast and crew scattered and the producers pondered how the show could go ahead. And when they returned (remotely) and decided to rework the season, their most immediate challenge was how to incorporate coronavirus into the story line, when the pandemic had just begun and no one knew how it would play out.
This mirrored, in fact, what happened during the first season, when events in the world — in that case, the ructions over the #MeToo movement — overtook what had been the script.
“The Morning Show,” introduced to great fanfare as the marquee program on the new Apple TV+ streaming service in 2019, was loosely inspired by Brian Stelter’s nonfiction book “Top of the Morning,” about the cutthroat politics of morning television. But while at first it was concerned mostly with the infighting between Alex Levy (Aniston) and her co-anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), it revamped itself with broader ambitions that reflected the changes wrought by #MeToo.
After unmasking Alex’s former co-anchor, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), as a serial sexual predator, the show explored the repercussions for his victims as well as for those at the network who ignored, enabled or colluded in his behavior.
The first season ended with Alex and Bradley making explosive on-air revelations about UBA’s sexually toxic work environment. The second, which premiered earlier this month, begins months later, on New Year’s Eve 2019, with Bradley assigned to Times Square ball-drop broadcast duty and Alex, who has left the network, mulling over whether to return.
It’s a moment of seeming innocence, as the characters put to rest the difficulties of 2019 and look happily ahead to 2020, unaware of the iceberg lurking beneath the water. “It’s a new year,” Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), UBA’s Machiavellian chief executive (he has been promoted since last season) says jauntily, as the sounds of “Auld Lang Syne” swell up in an emotional montage. “Things are looking up.”
Well. We have already heard mention of a “mysterious respiratory illness.” And then Cory spots an item on the news ticker: the family of Hannah, a young employee who slept with Mitch and later died of an overdose, has filed a wrongful-death suit against the network. And then there is perhaps the most ominous development of all, when a woman standing behind Cory sneezes and the episode ends with a thud.
‘Are We Just Going to Ignore This?’
The shutdown caused the show’s writers, led by Kerry Ehrin, to go back and rework everything.
“For a topical show that looks at the world as it is, the question was, ‘Are we going to just ignore this?’” said Michael Ellenberg, an executive producer and the chief executive of Media Res, the studio behind the series. That would be impossible, they decided.
“We had to address the times we were in, and so our first conversation was how to do it. Kerry was adamant that we did not want to speculate about the future — how long the pandemic would last, would it end, what it would look like after,” he added. “And so we quickly settled on this idea of, let’s look at the windup to the pandemic, when things are building and all the while there’s this bomb under the table.”
Season 2 is set in the first three months of 2020. The virus has struck China and is slowly gathering force to overtake the rest of the world. At the same time, a reckoning is coming for many of the characters, as they struggle with their own identities and with a changing understanding of power, race and privilege in and out of work.
Angry that he has been passed over to host a presidential debate, Danny (Desean Terry), a reporter on the show-within-the-show, demands to know what it is — being gay? Being Black? — that has impeded his career. Stella (Greta Lee), the blunt-speaking new president of UBA’s news division who is Asian American, agonizes about whether she was hired as a token, even as she is subjected to Trump-style racial slurs about the coronavirus on the street. Yanko Flores (Nestor Carbonell), the beloved Cuban American weatherman, is accused of appropriating Indigenous culture after he uses the expression “spirit animal” on the air, and then attacked again when his apology is deemed insufficiently sincere.
Bradley struggles with her sexuality and her relationship with her conservative, dysfunctional family. (A delicious new character, the network anchor Laura Peterson, played by Julianna Margulies at her feline best, figures prominently in this plotline.)
Meanwhile, Mitch, who is now persona non grata and has retreated to a cavernous villa in Italy in the wake of his disgrace, struggles with whether he has a right to any post-cancellation life at all. And Alex, her marriage over and her assumptions about the world in tatters, excavates and re-examines her relationship with Mitch — a man she worked beside, and loved, for many years.
“The first season dealt with the #MeToo movement and its repercussions — turning over the rocks and seeing what’s underneath,” said Mimi Leder, the director and an executive producer of the series. “The second season deals with identity. We’re asking a lot of tough questions about cancel culture, sexuality, race and the like. We’re asking our characters to examine who they really are.”
At a time when it feels brave to acknowledge that all sexual misconduct is not created equal, “The Morning Show” wades directly into the issue. Younger characters are at odds with older characters, and there are varying opinions on how to view once-acceptable behavior that is now verboten. Is it OK, for example, to think that there is anything redeemable about Mitch?
In one particularly memorable scene, Bradley chides Maggie Brener (Marcia Gay Harden), a journalist who has written a book about UBA, about forgiveness and compassion.
“The question is, how do we have more grace as human beings toward each other?” Witherspoon, who is also an executive producer, said in an interview. “What about people who are genuinely contrite, or who have committed forgivable offenses? I don’t think, as a society, we’ve gotten there yet.”
The fictional changes on the show mirror the real changes in the industry, Witherspoon said. Among other things, she said, there is now mandatory harassment training before filming — something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
“There is so much more thoughtfulness about people’s emotional well-being,” she said. “It feels like a safer environment to create in. It all has complexity, but I’m thankful for a safer workplace.”
An Emotional Sucker Punch
Filming started again in the fall of 2020, before Covid-19 vaccines became available. Some cast and crew members had moved away, or did not feel safe working, and did not return. The production halted several more times, not because anyone fell ill, but because of government restrictions. As with other shows that shot during the pandemic, the production developed rigorous protocols about testing, hygiene, protective equipment and behavior on set, even as the characters were maskless while shooting their scenes.
It was a fraught time to film, Aniston said, compounded by the weightiness of the material. (The season features a lot of confronting, reconsidering, reckoning and dramatic weeping.)
“As someone who usually lives with a skip in their step and a smile on their face — I was screamed out and cried out and emoted out by the end,” she said. “It took weeks for my eyes to de-puff from all the emotions.”
Even as this was going on, Aniston and her “Friends” castmates filmed their long-anticipated, and several-times-delayed, reunion episode. To return, at this grave moment, to the lighthearted show that so defined her career was another head-spinning experience, Aniston said.
“We all had such blissful ignorance going into the reunion,” she said. “We were thinking, ‘How much fun is this going to be, to go back to Stage 24 exactly the way it was, exactly the way we left it.’ But it was a sucker punch to the heart. It turns out that it’s not so easy to time travel.”
When “Friends” wrapped up after a decade, in 2004, “we were all bright eyed and bushy-tailed, looking toward the future,” she continued. “But there was a lot to come for everyone — hard truths and changes and loss and babies and marriages and divorces and miscarriages. One of the real emotional things for me was the realization was that times were so much simpler then. For one thing, we didn’t have social media the way we have now.”
There have been no announcements about a possible Season 3 of “The Morning Show,” but it’s clear that there are many things still to explore, not least how the characters might move on from the traumas of 2020. Beyond the pandemic, there is still the open question of what happens to people caught in the maw of public scandals.
“I hope we’re taking a moment to pause when agitated, and to take each case as it comes, and to use due process,” Aniston said. “It’s too easy when, with one click of a button, someone just disappears.”
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