Not everyone will thrive.
But Morning Wars gives Apple TV + its best shot at survival. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell among its dreamy cast, this drama about the cutthroat world of US morning news is the show everyone has been waiting for since Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom went off the air.
In fact, it’s better. Sorry Mr Sorkin.
If you like a side order of sexual misconduct with your headlines and a ripped-from-the-headlines commentary on #MeToo, then Morning Wars is unbelievably current considering the rigours of filming ten one-hour episodes.
But, first, a word about Aniston. Yes, we know she’s become a movie star since Friends went off the air 15 years ago, but we’ve forgotten perhaps how much the small screen loves her. And Morning Wars is tailor-made for her particularly relatable brand of charm.
Only, of course, she’s no longer a chronically under-employed 30-something sharing a flat with her mates. As Morning Wars’ reliable network TV anchor, Alex Levy, she’s 50-something, newly-separated, lonely, exhausted and very rich.
But this isn’t simply a three names above the title affair, boasting an extraordinary cast including Billy Crudup’s network president, Mark Duplass’ overworked morning show producer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s head booker and Bel Powley’s randy PA.
Told through the lens of Aniston’s Levy and Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson, the story follows these two complicated women as they navigate the power dynamics of high-octane jobs while each facing their own personal crises.
What’s refreshing is that these early episodes look less like the well-worn, “two women fight over a job” narrative and more like “Two women fight an industry that undervalues them”. Certainly their rapport is reflected in the body language of the two leading ladies when FilmInk meets with them and their fellow cast at Morning Wars’ recent launch in West Hollywood, an event so shrouded in secrecy it was held at a hotel that still isn’t open to the public.
“The show existed before #MeToo happened,” says Aniston, 50, addressing the drama’s perfect timing in the zeitgeist. “The show was always going to take a look behind the New York media world and the morning talk shows. But I think once #MeToo happened, obviously the conversation drastically changed so we were able to incorporate that and really ask ourselves what the tone would be.”
Ask her what that tone might be, she rattles off a long list of adjectives.
“We wanted it to be raw and honest and vulnerable and messy. I think as we were all stumbling along trying to figure out the narrative, the show was writing itself.”
Of course, this isn’t strictly true. Written and directed by Kerry Ehrin, Morning Wars is loosely based on Brian Stelter’s book Top of the Morning and also co executive-produced by Aniston and Witherspoon.
Replacing House of Cards’ Jay Carson on the project, Ehrin began on the show in April 2018. “I had a meeting with Apple, and they talked about the concept of a morning show based on the world in Brian Stelter’s book which is very real as well as heart-breaking and absurd. Brian’s tone was very exciting to me – as was the fact Reese and Jen were already attached to the project,” recalls Ehrin.
“It was daunting because I had to work fast, whereas normally, in the pilot world you have a year to figure it out, so we hit the ground running.
“But it’s impossible to talk about morning news and not deal with #MeToo. It would be somewhat negligent. So, these characters are very complicated and, in many ways, dark, messed-up people.”
Ultimately, she says, “at the heart of this is a story about how people lie to themselves”.
Witherspoon, bespectacled and wearing a pink power suit, has nothing but praise. “Kerry did a great job of creating six very different and nuanced characters. They all come from different backgrounds with different levels of success with different motivations and ideologies – and they’re all highly motivated. They’re all working at cross-purposes all of the time so when they collide, it’s fascinating.”
The growing #MeToo movement has certainly guaranteed Morning Wars’ spot among must-see TV and perhaps given Apple TV+ a ratings boost over Disney +, its biggest new rival to the streaming place; both these giants set to take on Netflix, Amazon and HBO Max etc.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a time in my life where more people have lost their entire careers over misconduct,” ventures Witherspoon, 43. “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.”
Certainly, the actress has learned a few things about viability, also serving as executive producer on Big Little Lies.
In finding inspiration for her new role, Aniston looked at US TV news doyenne Diane Sawyer, who actually swung by Morning Wars’ set. “In my fantasy, mine is a Diane Sawyer archetype. I’ve always looked up to her and I was able to sit with her and ask her numerous questions. It was quite a lovely experience,” she says.
Carell, 57, has longed to work with Aniston ever since they first met on Bruce Almighty 16 years ago. “I was so excited just to be in one scene with her but to get the opportunity to do this with her now is unbelievable,” says the actor who plays disgraced TV anchor Mitch Kessler.
Witherspoon likes that Morning Wars is many things to many people although, for her, she believes it to be second and fourth wave feminism. “I think what’s really interesting about our characters is that Alex [Aniston] has existed in a system that barely made space for her and she felt lucky to be the only woman in that space. My character comes in and says, ‘Hold on. Just one woman isn’t enough. There needs to more of them.’ You see clashing ideologies, but you see it galvanising towards a singular purpose at the end of the season.”
If feminism is the big “ism” addressed in the drama, then ask Aniston if she’s ever experienced “ageism” in her career… she nods in the affirmative. “But I’m still here. We’re all still here.”
Witherspoon agrees. “You just don’t get to right women off; you just don’t get to right people of colour off. You just don’t get to right people off, and I think the reality with the emerging social networking and streaming services is that they actually have empirical data; that audiences want to see people of different ages and different backgrounds. It validates our audiences and creates an opportunity for new voices to emerge and new story-tellers to be heard,” she argues.
“So, I’m enormously grateful to these streaming services. It’s changed my entire career.”
The irony of a streaming service using a story about a broadcast TV show to launch its platform is not lost on any of this savvy cast.
Morning Wars is available now on Apple TV+