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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    Apple’s ‘The Morning Show’ was only going to touch on #MeToo. She fought to make it the focus.

    Jennifer Aniston, left, and Reese Witherspoon star in "The Morning Show." (Apple)

    “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 to introduce the tech giant’s $4.99-per-month service. 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.”

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