How The Morning Show Interrogates the #MeToo Debate

The first batch of episodes from Apple TV+’s flagship series included some uncomfortable conversations about the movement. Here’s why.

#MeToo is risky territory, especially for a show that’s already shouldering the burden of being the marquee series in Apple’s entrée into TV streaming. (Tony Rivetti Jr. / Apple)

This article contains spoilers through Episode 3 of The Morning Show.

When she boarded Apple TV+’s flagship series The Morning Show as showrunner, Kerry Ehrin figured the job would be less stressful than her previous one as an executive producer on Bates Motel, the A&E series that prequelized Psycho. Writing about the people who help Americans start their day, Ehrin assumed, had to be more pleasant than imagining the psyche of one of pop culture’s most notorious villains.

She was wrong. “Honestly, it was exhausting!” she told me earlier this month in Los Angeles, laughing. “It’s much easier to write about serial killers, and that’s saying something.”

The Morning Show, which debuted its first three episodes last Friday, was inspired by Top of the Morning, the journalist Brian Stelter’s 2013 book on the behind-the-scenes drama of daytime television. The series expanded its scope after the Today anchor Matt Lauer was fired in November 2017 over allegations of sexual misconduct. (After the initial allegations that year, Lauer apologized in a statement, saying, “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.” This year, after the release of Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, which included new details of the allegations against the anchor, Lauer argued that the encounters were “completely mutual and consensual.”)

Apple expanded the show’s scope and hired Ehrin in April 2018 to replace the writer Jay Carson as showrunner. Ehrin incorporated the #MeToo movement into the premise: In the pilot’s opening minutes, the beloved anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is fired from the titular morning show because of sexual misconduct in the workplace. The show traces the scandal’s impact not just on Mitch, but also on the network, on Mitch’s longtime co-anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), and on Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), the short-fused field reporter plucked from regional TV to potentially take Mitch’s vacant seat.

Ehrin also sought to examine #MeToo as it relates to today’s so-called cancel culture, in which public figures are widely condemned and pushed to exit existing projects. “If you’re doing a story about morning news right now, how do you not do #MeToo?” Ehrin said. “It’s been the most hugely earthshaking movement, really, of my adult life. Why wouldn’t I want to write about it?”

Well, for one, #MeToo is risky territory, especially for a show that’s already shouldering the burden of being the marquee series in Apple’s entrée into TV streaming. Yes, the movement has been a popular small-screen topic of late, but to deal with it is to deal with ambiguities that don’t often lead to tidy storytelling. Even though some shows have successfully tackled #MeToo, others using it as the thrust of their narrative arcs have yielded story lines that lacked nuance. The Affair raised the subject in a misguided attempt at topicality toward the end of its final season, but dropped it entirely by the series finale. The 2018 reboot of Murphy Brown devoted an episode to the topic, but as the Variety critic Caroline Framke wrote, it ended up “feeling more like it’s working through a checklist than revealing much of any new insight.”

“Do I feel sorry for people who have done bad things, [who] used their power over others? No, they pretty much get what they deserve. But then there’s the flip side: They are human beings … ” —Mimi Leder (Apple)

#MeToo wasn’t the only threat to the story Ehrin wanted to tell. The world of morning news has a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood: The Morning Show’s A-list leads have all been on these programs to promote projects, gab with the anchors, and sometimes even to rehabilitate their images to the public. (Witherspoon, for instance, once apologized on Good Morning America after she was arrested for disorderly conduct.) Of learning why Lauer was fired, Aniston told Variety, “It’s such a strange thing; it felt oddly like my dad did something terrible. I trusted him and had been interviewed by him. He was there for so many moments in my life.” In that sense, The Morning Show, while not the first (or the last) series to explore #MeToo, is the flashiest, most ambitious, and most high-profile effort at telling such a story, a story audiences have likely followed and grappled with on an intimate level.

Judging by the first batch of episodes, the series is attempting to untangle the thorny, systemic gender and power issues in the morning-news industry. Consider the scene from the second episode in which Mitch protested to his producer, Chip Black (Mark Duplass), about his termination. Having sexual relationships with staffers, Mitch argued, was not as bad as some of the allegations against other men named in the #MeToo movement. “This is McCarthyism, you know it,” he griped. “Everybody knows it. But people just don’t have the fortitude to say it out loud.”

Chip’s response caught him by surprise. “I’ll say it!” Chip replied. “We’re being too fast to judge men in the court of public opinion ... The whole #MeToo movement is probably an overcorrection for centuries of bad behavior that more enlightened men like you and me had nothing to do with.”

Duplass grimaced when I brought up the scene to him during the series’ press-tour stop in Los Angeles. “That was a very hard line to say in the show,” he admitted. “I grappled with that a lot. And I have different interpretations of what he was feeling and saying in the moment, but ultimately I do believe it is a line that particularly white men in positions of power are saying right now, and it needed to be said.”

These challenging discussions, he continued, are key to making a show about #MeToo work. “A lot of times [stories like this] come down to: Who is the accuser? Who is the accused? And the one person who was the linchpin,” he explained. “We have all these people who are just kind of around it. [We’re looking into] what they did know, what they didn’t know, and what those responsibilities could be.”

In that regard, the series isn’t taking sides. “Do I feel sorry for people who have done bad things, [who] used their power over others? No, they pretty much get what they deserve,” the executive producer Mimi Leder, who directed the first two episodes and the finale, told me when we spoke last month. “But then there’s the flip side: They are human beings; they are people. So I think that’s a really interesting question to present to an audience.”

Episode 3 probed that question further. Mitch debated the merits of #MeToo with a director (played by Martin Short) who’d also been named as a perpetrator of sexual harassment on his sets, and whose films had been relitigated since that news. At first, the pair agreed, calling the movement “so fucking puritanical” and “myopic.” But Mitch bristled after hearing Short’s character rant about one of his accusers, concluding that their offenses weren’t the same. “You are actually a predator, and people are going to want you to own that,” he said. “As opposed to … What are you exactly, Mitch?” the director countered. “Not you,” Mitch replied.

“As I thought more about Chip and the characters on the show, I did think, like, Hmm, I haven’t actually been perfectly clean all the way until I got here too.” —Mark Duplass (Frank Masi / Apple)

Some critics have challenged the value of showing scenes like these and refusing to condemn someone like Mitch. Thrillist called such conversations “suspiciously sympathetic to #MeToo naysayers,” while Variety wrote that the show was “punting on the questions it itself puts forward in favor of airily treating them as too complicated,” leading to a series that’s “politically muddled.” Others praised their complexity: Mashable found the debates a “high-wire balance between conversations many of us have had or wanted to have and the utterly cringeworthy.”

When I spoke with Ehrin, the reviews hadn’t been released yet. But she acknowledged the tricky nature of such depictions. “I’m a very conscientious person, and I’m a very empathetic person, and I have a great deal of empathy for women who’ve been hurt and used and lied to and manipulated,” she explained. “I would never want to do anything that I thought was insensitive.

“These are conversations that happen,” she continued. “I’ve overheard these conversations. Do we want to not think those conversations are happening?”

Certainly, they are happening. In reality, many of the figures implicated in #MeToo have staunch defenders. Many have even either returned or begun trying to return to the public eye. Last month, Harvey Weinstein attended an event in New York for aspiring comedians, and an attendee who protested his presence was kicked out of the venue. Last week, the TV writer and producer David Simon defended the actor James Franco, who worked on his show The Deuce, arguing that Franco’s alleged indiscretions didn’t involve seeking sexual favors. In other words, Franco’s actions weren’t as “bad” as the actions of others implicated in the movement. (In early 2018, five women—four students at the film school he founded and one who considered Franco her mentor—told the Los Angeles Times the actor engaged in inappropriate and exploitative behavior, including removing protective plastic guards over actors’ vaginas to simulate oral sex. Franco responded to the allegations when they first surfaced on social media, stating, “If I have done something wrong, I will fix it.”)

My colleague Megan Garber wrote about the “failed reckonings” of #MeToo, pointing out that while many public figures have performed accountability—for instance, in Franco’s case, wearing a “Time’s Up” pin at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards—doing so is not enough. “There have been forward movements this year, yes: meaningful ones, lasting ones, ones that have vast implications for the broader culture … but while the lost jobs are, indeed, measures of accountability, they are not its full form. They don’t fully address the structures of things. They don’t help to make #MeToo or its effects more inclusive, more systemic, more lasting, more real,” she explained, adding that these performative acts led to “a more insidious backlash” to the forward momentum of the movement.

The way that system is portrayed on The Morning Show may be challenging for an audience to contend with. It’s upsetting to see, in Episode 2, the show’s booker Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) manipulate one of Mitch’s accusers into telling her story on the show. It’s distressing to watch, in Episode 3, the network executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup) tell the women in the newsroom that he intends to launch “an era for The Morning Show where women make the rules” while making decisions about Alex’s professional future behind her back. Alex’s career path is determined by the men running the network, who, the show hints, turned a blind eye to Mitch’s indiscretions and fired him only after his actions were picked up by the press.

It’s tough to sympathize with Aniston’s character, Alex, at this stage as well. To viewers, she may seem to be the stand-in for the likes of Katie Couric and Jane Pauley—the Today anchors Ehrin and Leder listed as ones they once watched growing up—but The Morning Show exposes Alex’s part in the system as well. Alex condemned Mitch’s actions on air in the pilot, but visited him privately. “This show deals with people who lie to themselves, and who lie about themselves,” Leder said. “They want to control their narrative.” These men and women may have protected Mitch, The Morning Show implies, because keeping him in power meant maintaining their own.

The drama of producing two hours of live TV every morning provides juicy story lines, and The Morning Show writers deftly switch between analyzing #MeToo and portraying the plots described in Top of the Morning. The bulk of Stelter’s book, about the botched ousting of the Today co-host Ann Curry, can be seen in The Morning Show’s interest in Alex’s longevity. (In turn, Aniston gets to lean into her own meta-narrative as a TV star reclaiming her domain.) And the network executive Cory is the type of figure even those outside the industry know well: “I’ve seen hustlers like that in New York for forever, so I didn’t take him from the world of morning news or the network-executive perspective,” Crudup told me. “I felt like he was written like an opportunist and a capitalist and a highly successful one.”

Ehrin agreed. “There were not a lot of surprises [in reading Top of the Morning],” she said. If anything, she drew inspiration from her time in Hollywood. “That’s what I pulled from—Brian Stelter’s book, and my life experience … It’s a complicated, weird, fucked-up world that over time can make people crazy,” she said, laughing. “That was part of what I wanted to portray. What is really real in entertainment?”

To capture the intensity of the morning-news world and to emphasize the claustrophobia of working for an institution that depends on the carefully calibrated reputations of its stars, Ehrin worked with Leder to establish a distinct visual language. Leder opted for tight, intense close-ups of the leads and lingering shots that held on characters’ faces “longer than you normally would,” she told me. “When Jen is looking at herself in the mirror when she asks for the salary dues, and the world is falling apart and the walls are tumbling down, and her character is so angry and so hurt, I just kept pushing in on her. There was a lot of discussion about that shot.” Leder paused and adapted the voice of a challenger. “‘It should be shorter, it’s so uncomfortable.’ ‘Yes,’” she recalled, returning to her voice. “‘I want you to be uncomfortable.’”

That discomfort is the cornerstone of the series. The Morning Show demonstrates how the industry doesn’t really know how to handle sexual harassment, and how it’s much easier to performatively acknowledge the movement while keeping the same troubling structures in place. Still, the show has the chance to imagine how a workplace could upend these systems—and to choose a side. The upcoming episodes may do that—Apple ordered two seasons of the show, so there’s plenty of wiggle room left. But in its initial outing, the drama has presented only questions, not answers.

“As I thought more about Chip and the characters on the show, I did think, like, Hmm, I haven’t actually been perfectly clean all the way until I got here too,” Duplass said, citing early films he made that didn’t explore female characters in depth and that failed to hire female producers. “I got myself slowly to this place, you know? But I look at that growth pattern, and I start to have sympathy for some people in The Morning Show. Like, yeah, it kind of takes a while sometimes to shift.”

Just as it will, Ehrin told me, for the series’ message to emerge. “I definitely have an opinion [on #MeToo], and I do feel like it comes through, through the 10 episodes,” she said. “Be patient with me.” After all, it took Bates Motel five seasons to reach the plot of Psycho.