Apple’s ‘The Morning Show’ was only going to touch on #MeToo. She fought to make it the focus
“I’m about to go on a ride I’ve never been on,” Kerry Ehrin says inside her office on the Sony lot in Culver City.
The 59-year-old writer and producer is hardly a novice, with credits that include “Friday Night Lights” and “Bates Motel.” But for the past 15 months or so she’s been on the suspenseful tick, tick, tick climb up the first peak of television’s newest attraction, Apple TV+, as the showrunner of the company’s most anticipated series and perhaps her highest-profile project to date: “The Morning Show.”
The drama stars Jennifer Aniston, in her first TV role since “Friends,” as Alex Levy, a morning news anchor dealing with ageism, sexism and the collateral damage wrought by her disgraced male co-anchor (played by Steve Carell), who is fired over sexual harassment allegations. Reese Witherspoon costars as Bradley Jackson, a local reporter in West Virginia who finds herself caught up in the high-stakes world of morning news.
“The Morning Show” is one of nine original series that will introduce the tech giant’s $4.99-per-month service on Nov. 1. And with its A-list cast, timely premise and a reported price tag of $15 million an episode, the series’ reception — as well as its ability to plant a flag for Apple’s ambitions in the TV space — will be under scrutiny. It’s something Ehrin is fully aware of, even as she strives to tune out the hubbub.
“I can’t say if I like this or that better, because I’ve never experienced this,” she says. “The hugeness of it feels different. ... It’s a very meaningful project to a lot of people. And being responsible for it is — that’s a lot of responsibility. I’ve felt that for the last 15 months.”
But, she continues, “you can’t think about it. You have to just think about the creative vision. You have to live inside the fictional world and not deal with the reality, because it’s easy to lose your focus. And you need a lot of focus to push something through that fast.”
In fact, by the time Ehrin came aboard “The Morning Show,” the project was already well underway. (“It was like I was jumping on a moving train,” she says.) Inspired by Brian Stelter’s “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV” and shepherded by former HBO executive Michael Ellenberg, the series was picked up by Apple in fall 2017 just as the #MeToo movement was taking hold and allegations surfaced against morning news heavyweight Matt Lauer. The original pilot, written by Jay Carson, had focused on the politics of morning news. After Carson left over creative differences, Ehrin took over in April 2018 — a tight crunch with production scheduled to begin that November — and brought the sexual harassment element into the foreground.
“There was this idea that there needed to be a presence of #MeToo in it,” Ehrin recalls. “And I was just like, don’t do a ‘presence.’ That’s it — like, the whole thing. That’s what the subject is. There’s no subject bigger or more important right now.”
While some TV shows have worked #MeToo storylines into episodes, “The Morning Show” is the first to make it so much a part of its DNA.
For the record, Ehrin insists that Carell’s disgraced character isn’t directly modeled after Lauer: “I understand why people think that or would go there, but that’s not what the show is and it wasn’t my intention. I have no desire to write about Matt Lauer. What was interesting to me was telling a unique story about a subject that was [timely].”
“I was interested to see the fallout and what it did to his work partner, Alex, who had everything change in her life even though it was not something she did. I wanted to tell her story. And then, of course, Bradley’s is the story of someone coming into this world.”
Ehrin didn’t have much time for research, saying most of it happened on the fly. She has a close friend who works at “Good Morning America” and she talked to different news producers at different networks. She wrote the pilot in three weeks. The process of fine-tuning it was a collaboration with Ellenberg, as well as Aniston and Witherspoon, who both serve as executive producers. Ehrin also praised director and executive producer Mimi Leder for the way she set the tone of the series with that first episode.
“It’s little fiddling all the way,” she says, noting the stack of pilot drafts that sit under one of the side tables in her office. “The input [from Aniston and Witherspoon] was almost always about character, it was about wanting to understand what their characters were going through.”
“I’m in awe of her,” Aniston says of working with Ehrin. The actress-producer commended Ehrin for her deft handling of the complicated feelings provoked by the series’ charged subject matter.
“She went to the heart of it,” Aniston says by phone. “She didn’t have an angle. She said things that were unthinkable to be said out loud. She didn’t try to be politically correct. I think she was trying to capture what was actually going on in society, which was, ‘What are we doing now? How do we do this? What’s that trickle down effect of all of it?’ Because everyone’s sort of trying to understand the new playing field.”
Looking back, Ehrin says, “I knew it was going to be stressful and I knew we were going to be under the gun, on a timeline. I knew it was a lot of different aspects: the partners, new studio, new streaming service. ... It was the hardest year of my work life ever. But it was also incredibly rewarding.”
Ehrin’s interest in storytelling developed at an early age. As a child growing up in Los Angeles, she and her sister would put on plays for the neighborhood kids, often adaptations of fairy tales, in their home driveway. “I remember telling my third-grade teacher I had written a play and asked if I could perform it for the class,” Ehrin says. “I don’t know why it mattered so deeply to me ... but it was just something I had to do.”
Her father, John, was a film editor and her mother, Colleen, worked as an assistant at 20th Century Fox. Despite her upbringing, show business didn’t seem like a natural path: “It wasn’t really part of my life. It’s not like we hung out with a lot of people from the studio. We just lived in the Valley and we had a pretty basic life.”
Ehrin later studied literature and playwriting at UCLA. It was her then-boyfriend’s father, prolific sci-fi author and screenwriter Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man”), whom Ehrin describes as a formative mentor, who suggested she try writing a script after he read her thesis on Lewis Carroll.
“I had no idea how I was going to make money because I was an English major,” Ehrin says. “So I took his advice.”
Her first paid gig was writing an episode of “The Jetsons” in the ’80s, when new episodes were made for syndication — “I made $2,000 and I was never happier,” Ehrin says. She went on to a full-fledged staff job on ABC’s popular Cybill Shepherd-Bruce Willis romantic dramedy “Moonlighting,” “a crazy show to start your career on because it was so huge.” The credits would mount from there — “The Wonder Years,” “Boston Public,” “Boston Legal,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” — before she co-created A&E’s “Psycho” prequel “Bates Motel” with Carlton Cuse in 2013. She currently has a multi-year overall deal with Apple.
For Ehrin, who has three children and now lives in Calabasas, being in the thick of the industry’s metamorphosis has been a whirlwind. As TV studios, networks and a growing roster of streaming services serve up an unprecedented number of TV shows, there’s added pressure on creatives to deliver show’s that can hold the attention of viewers.
“It sometimes feels overwhelming to me when I’m just driving down the street and it’s like this show, this show, this show — and I’m like, ‘What the [expletive] are these shows?’” she says. “It’s a lot. But maybe it will start to feel like going into a bookstore. No one gets overwhelmed in a bookstore. You’re just like, ‘Wow, look at this.’”
Those who’ve worked with Ehrin emphasize her ability to channel characters — and tap into the subtext between characters.
“She would often stare off, in another zone, and riff passages of dialogue that were so good,” Cuse writes in an email. “It was a marvel to watch. The only way she knows how to write is to get deep inside the characters and feel what they feel in a truly meaningful way.”
Jason Katims, who was showrunner on “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” refers to it as Ehrin’s “calling card.” One example that stands out, he says, was a moment from the first season of “Friday Night Lights” featuring the show’s central couple, Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami (played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton).
“She thought it was important to see Coach and Tami have a big, messy marital argument early in the first season. I think it was her instinct that if we’re asking the audience to get invested in this couple and root for them, we’ve got to see it get messy and see them come out on the other side of that. As usual, that instinct was a thousand-percent correct.”
“She’s not interested in sanctimony and she’s not interested in preaching,” as Ellenberg puts it. “That’s what makes her characters engaging because most of us are a mess, very few of us are saints. So you can connect to most any character in her story because they’re all struggling to figure it out. Like all of us.”
These days, Ehrin is deep in that mind-set with the writer’s room in session on the second season of “The Morning Show.” (The series was picked up with a two-season commitment.)
“I’m tired,” she says, half-jokingly. But the ride has only just begun.
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