Reese Witherspoon isn’t about to cause a scene. But she is freaking out a little bit. “Diane Sawyer came to visit and oh my God, it was amazing!” Sitting in a Los Angeles restaurant on a balmy August evening, the Academy Award winner throws her hands over her face to muffle her excitement. (There will be no Elle Woods-esque squeal here.) She’s recalling the day that the legendary broadcast journalist stopped by the set of her upcoming series with Jennifer Aniston, The Morning Show (Nov. 1). Her face still in her hands, Witherspoon continues in disbelief: “She sat at the monitor and watched me and Jen read the news!” The pair have come a long way since trading barbs at Central Perk.
The Morning Show — which marks Aniston’s major return to TV after Friends ended in 2004, and the pair’s first project together since Witherspoon guest-starred on the NBC comedy as Rachel’s spoiled little sister Jill in 2000 — takes viewers inside the world of daybreak news. “There’s something sort of bulletproof about morning shows,” Witherspoon says. “They’re a stalwart part of American culture.” After all, every day millions of Americans wake up and turn on the Today show, or any number of other programs, and are greeted by familiar faces they trust to deliver the news with just the right amount of personality. At least that’s the expectation. As you brew your morning coffee, they update you on the latest from the White House. As you pick out your clothes for the day, they let you know how the weather is looking. And as you prepare to head out the door, they amuse you with fun anecdotes about the internet’s buzziest viral video. “These shows are some of the last programming in the country that still tries to appeal in Los Angeles and New York and Des Moines and Mississippi,” says Morning Show executive producer Michael Ellenberg. “You have to introduce an idea of what America is that works for blue states and red states.” It was Ellenberg who brought the idea for The Morning Show to Witherspoon, whom he worked with on Big Little Lies, and Aniston in late 2016. (“I said to him, ‘I’m not completely closed down to television because it’s been pretty good,’” Aniston recalls.)
He can trace the idea back to 1989, when he saw Jane Pauley get replaced on Today. (It’s widely believed to be because she was “too old.” She was 39 at the time.) Then in 2012, Today’s veteran newsreader Ann Curry was reportedly driven off the program after less than a year as a cohost, a subject explored in journalist Brian Stelter’s 2013 book Top of the Morning, which Ellenberg quickly optioned. (Stelter is a consulting producer on the show, which uses his book mostly for background research.) “These are some of the most powerful women in America, and we watched them get screwed publicly, basically,” Ellenberg says. Witherspoon adds: “I was astounded by how honest a lot of female anchors were with myself and Jen. I think most people would find it shocking that women in that position, of what we perceive as power, are looked at as expendable.”
With Aniston, 50, and Witherspoon, 43, on board to star and executive-produce the series, it wasn’t hard to find The Morning Show a home. By August 2017, they’d met with Apple. Did we mention that Apple creates TV shows now? In March 2019, the tech powerhouse announced it was entering the streaming world. (Hey, all the cool kids are doing it!) Joining the relative elders — Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video — as well as the new class of streamers — HBO Max, Disney+, Facebook Watch, Snap Originals, Quibi, and too many more to count — Apple is launching Apple TV+, an app so shrouded in secrecy you’d think it was the nuclear codes…or the next iPhone. For instance, ahead of Tuesday’s 2019 keynote, Apple wouldn’t even confirm how much it will cost. (But the Apple execs do have jokes, promising to reveal how much it will cost if only a reporter would hand over her credit-card info.)
One thing that’s always been known is that The Morning Show would be a part of Apple TV+’s initial slate of programming. “It was day 2 or 3 of us being here at Apple when we heard the pitch,” says Jamie Erlicht, who is head of worldwide video for Apple alongside Zack Van Amburg. (Both came over from Sony Pictures Television.) “It was so undeniable, both in the story they wanted to tell and who was involved. We left the meeting and we literally didn’t even know how to order paper clips for the office — let alone a TV series — but we said we had to have it.” Fifteen minutes later, they called to make an offer. And, it seems, the enthusiasm was mutual. “The more ambitious this project was, the more I felt like Apple was the right place for it, because they were taking a shot too,” Witherspoon says. “They’re putting themselves out there to get into the content world.” (It also probably didn’t hurt that Apple agreed to pick up the series for two 10-episode seasons before they’d filmed anything.)
But the show Apple was originally pitched isn’t exactly what made it to the screen. “We started developing it in August, and by November, the whole world had changed,” says Witherspoon. Specifically, #MeToo happened. On Oct. 5, 2017, The New York Times published a piece in which Ashley Judd, among others, accused film mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. On Oct. 15, Alyssa Milano invited other women to speak out by tweeting “me too,” a movement originated by Tarana Burke in 2006. And by the end of November, accusations had come out about Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and even Today’s Matt Lauer. On Nov. 29, NBC fired their cohost of two decades following allegations of sexual misconduct. “When #MeToo happened…it’s like, we can’t not address it,” Aniston says, with Witherspoon adding, “I don’t think I’ve seen a time in my life where more people have lost their entire careers over misconduct. People who were seemingly untouchable. We had to start totally over and redevelop the show, but it actually turned out to be so much more potent and topical.”
Part of that redevelopment process involved a showrunner swap. In April 2018, Kerry Ehrin replaced House of Cards’ Jay Carson, who’d previously been attached to the project. “We realized that the story that was unfolding was not the story we all wanted to tell,” says Erlicht. “So we regrouped with the exec-producing team and we realized that, as fantastic as Jay is, we just saw a different vision for this particular show, and that’s where Kerry came into the picture.” Ehrin, who’d written for Friday Night Lights and Parenthood and co-created Bates Motel, came to the series ready to tackle the #MeToo of it all as well as tell a story through a female lens. “I love Broadcast News and I love Network, so it feels like an area where you can have a lot of humor but you can also get at some real subjects,” Ehrin says. “I’ve been a woman in a very high-stakes business for 30 years and I’ve seen all kinds of stuff. I wanted to write complicated female characters that weren’t perfect and that weren’t bitches.”
Those complicated female characters include Aniston as longtime Morning Show cohost Alex Levy and Witherspoon — sporting brown hair and a Southern accent — as West Virginia local news reporter Bradley Jackson. Levy is a seasoned anchor. A well-oiled machine. She wakes up every morning at 3:30, works out, grabs her Red Bull and coffee, and prepares to give America whatever it needs that day. Jackson is a bit of a hothead. She’s dangerously passionate about the truth, and from time to time that passion gets her in trouble. (She’s nicknamed “Two F—s” Jackson from a moment she let the F-bomb slip on air…twice.) But neither woman is prepared for what their lives are about to become when the series begins.
In the show’s pilot, the sun’s not even up in New York City when s— hits the fan: After 15 years of cohosting alongside Alex Levy, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) has been fired following allegations of sexual misconduct. And it’s Levy who has to go on camera and address the nation, just mere hours after finding out the news herself. Sound familiar? “[Matt Lauer] won’t think this has anything to do with him,” Aniston says sarcastically. And although Ehrin would like to remind everyone that The Morning Show is a work of fiction, “this is the world we live in right now and it’s impossible to ignore it.” If there’s one thing this show doesn’t do, it’s ignore it. “People don’t look the other way anymore,” director and executive producer Mimi Leder says. “We put a microscope right up to who these people are.”
That includes the accused, Mitch, who, like Carell himself, is a man America has fallen in love with, and is one of the last men they want to see accused of something bad. As Aniston puts it, “No one else could play that part. There’s nothing you could find about Steve in a closet.” And for Carell, the man best known for playing hilariously incompetent boss Michael Scott on The Office for six years, it was a chance to play a guy who refuses to take a long, hard look in the mirror. “Mitch is a very flawed human being and someone with enormous personal blind spots,” Carell says. But Mitch’s firing is just the beginning of the most in-depth exploration of #MeToo scripted television has seen thus far. What happens to the accuser? What happens to the accused? How are loved ones affected? “Sometimes the world is so confusing that the only way that you can understand it is through art,” Witherspoon says. “We don’t take sides in any of it. It’s about the humanity of these issues.”
As for Witherspoon’s Bradley, she finds herself in Alex’s orbit when a video of her arguing with a coal-mine protester goes viral and the Morning Show producers bring her on for an interview. We can’t quite get into where the two women go from there, but with everything that’s going on, Bradley is not Alex’s biggest concern. Because not only has Alex lost her partner, but her contract is up for renegotiation with the network — led by slippery man-in-charge Cory Ellison (played to perfection by Billy Crudup) — and let’s just say that she’s older than Jane Pauley was in 1989. As Alex tells her teenage daughter in episode 3: “Sometimes women can’t ask for control, so they have to take it.”
Back in Los Angeles, just hours before Witherspoon will get lost in her memory of Diane Sawyer’s set visit, Aniston is sitting poolside at her sleek hilltop home, holding a bottle of Smartwater like the dedicated spokeswoman she is. Her blue eyes still sparkle the same way they did when she first walked onto the Friends soundstage. But by now, they’ve seen some things. “This role never could’ve come to me any sooner than now,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve had. I knew I was up to the task, but then there was the excavation of all the emotions in order to create this world for this woman. All of her lifelines are falling away. I would walk out of some of those scenes feeling like a manhole cover just came off my back.” Because, much in the way that America feels like it knows Alex Levy within the world of The Morning Show, America feels like it knows Jennifer Aniston in real life. “I understand that, with people having connections to Friends,” Aniston says. “I understand the isolation — not wanting to be seen, not wanting to be public, not wanting to have to go on a red carpet. It’s not always easy to go out there and have to be the person that you have to be.”
But when the lights come on and the cameras are pointed at you, you just figure it out. Especially if Diane Sawyer is watching.