The media can’t get enough when it comes to talking about the media — which is why, perhaps, its obsession extends to fictionalized takes on the business as well. HBO’s “Succession” and Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show” both fit the bill: They’re not actually based on real people or real events, but they’re definitely inspired by them.
“Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong became fascinated by the world of media family dynasties, including the Murdoch clan, after reading about Sumner Redstone’s obsession with immortality. That led to the characters of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his offspring, all scrambling for a piece of the throne that their father refuses to abdicate. And “The Morning Show” showrunner Kerry Ehrin was able to craft that program’s take on the real-life drama at various news organizations, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, by relying on consultants, including CNN’s Brian Stelter, whose book “Top of the Morning” provided plenty of true tales to adapt.
Here, Variety brings Armstrong and Ehrin together to compare notes on creating their shows’ larger worlds and writing about the media business, as well as the nature of power.
You both have crafted a fictional media world inspired by the actual one. How important is it to create your own universe?
Kerry Ehrin: When I have to inhabit a world to write in it, I in a way don’t like to have too many actual details. I like to have more of a crayon drawing of the shape of it, so that I can fill it in with what I need it to be for the character stories I’m telling. One of the things that I love about “Succession” is that it is always moved forward by the characters. Their emotional worlds are allowed to be so huge and I feel like if I know too much about the inner workings of every little board movement or how this works, it will basically drown my brain.
Jesse Armstrong: I’m a kind of nervous student. I want to know it all. But I respond very much to what you say because I feel like my process is to try and know it all. And then there comes a moment when you have to put it out of your mind because most of it isn’t creatively useful. Occasionally you come across something great in research, like, “People don’t know this and it’s going to be fascinating to show them.” And then that can lead to plot. I love a show where, whether it’s the mafia or a funeral parlor, it’s like, “I’m going to see in this world, what do they do inside the embalming room? What’s it like when the power structure breaks down inside the morgue?” And I think, finding out what happens in the place you’re not normally allowed is one of the cool things about a good show.
Do you find that the real-life media is more obsessed with these shows because they are a little bit of their world?
Ehrin: I think it can be a double-edged sword. It’s very hard usually to sell a show in Hollywood that is about being on the inside of entertainment, and I think there was an attitude that it’s too insider baseball and people don’t care; they can’t relate to it. But I think both of these shows come from a very human place. I think people just care about humans. You can put them in any situation, and the situation isn’t really relevant. What they’re watching is these desperate human beings trying to get their s— worked out.
Armstrong: We did this one episode that was about the shutting of a new-media enterprise called Vaulter. I don’t read the responses to the show completely or obsessively, but I noticed there was a bump of interest in the people who are in those kinds of endeavors and that’s just natural. I guess there’s another thing that you have to do in a media-y show — we don’t do it as much as “The Morning Show” — but when you show a studio and some news, people really know what that looks like. One of the things a show does in the first few minutes is establish whether you, the viewer, can trust it. I think “Morning Show” does it brilliantly. From graphics to the whole look of it, you’re like, “Yeah, I know this show.” And I think we’ve gotten better at it. We’ve got a really good graphics team, a lot of advisers around us now who help us say, “Hey, no, that’s a font from like five years ago” or “They wouldn’t use that word on the chyron.”
Ehrin: There’s an army of people that are watching all of that, to make sure it is correct. It was actually mind-blowing the first season, how much work and focus had to go into that. Mimi Leder is our wonderful producing director and has a great eye for all of that.
What’s fun about both of these shows are the twists and surprising moments that shift the narrative. How do you map out when to blow things up and shock the audience?
Ehrin: Basically when you write, you’re trying to entertain yourself. So if you are delighted by an idea, it’s good. And then if you start getting bored, even though things are in the right place, if it’s not thrilling you or you’re not dying to write it, then you need to change it up.
Armstrong: It is curious to me because this is the first thing of this scale I’d been involved with. I didn’t know what kind of show we would write when we got together in the writers’ room. So both ends of both seasons had left you in a place with a question mark.
Another hallmark of both your shows is that you manage to mix dark moments with light- hearted, almost silly moments.
Ehrin: I think that’s a really fun balance to play in. To have one foot in the very dark, tragic sadness and then this other foot in a joy, that is basically like being alive. It’s infectious, and you can be miserable and do awful things and still have this joy. It’s morally confusing, but that’s all right.
Armstrong: And also, it’s true, right? People who you know who die, or terrible things happen, within that context there can be humor there. And oftentimes there is. It can save you, and that’s the kind of warm humor. The other kind of humor, which I’m interested in, is if you take these guys — especially the big business people we sometimes see in both our shows — at their own estimation, you’re gilding their thrones for them. These people make foolish mistakes, they say dumb things, they sell their companies at the wrong time, they buy companies at the wrong time. They go through the wrong doors; they’re human foibles. It’s part of life to show the ridiculousness.
Do you start to feel sort of a kinship to certain characters? As the show evolves, how does your relationship with these characters evolve?
Armstrong: I have to be able to imagine I’m Shiv just as much as Tom and Kendall and Logan. When you’re in their heads, you have to be fully in there. It’s a much more enjoyable world where you feel like the creators have a person in mind for all these different characters who you meet.
Ehrin: It’s probably too close. I think I end up being closer to them than to actual people. It’s kind of a love affair. I fall in love with the characters I write. And I see all of their foibles and their vulnerabilities and their little wants and what they’re trying to do and how they f— it up. It’s hard to not fall in love with them. Like Cory, in the beginning, was just such a prick. And then it was like the combination of Billy Crudup playing him and then me just starting to see the side of him that was so fascinating and deeply vulnerable but so deep he couldn’t show it. And I started to really love that character so much. And it happens a lot of times when I write people who are supposed to be a bad guy or a bad woman: You get inside of them because you have to get inside of them and you fall in love with them.
Do you find it disturbing that often viewers fall in love with the more despicable characters on a TV show?
Armstrong: I don’t have any problem with it creatively — having characters who are not traditionally likable, if they’re interesting, like George Costanza and Tony Soprano. We’re not interested in perfect human beings. I don’t know that I quite fall in love with them. One of the problems for the family that we portray in the show is that there’s nothing quite so exciting to them in the world as their own family. So even though it’s not always a healthy place to be, they keep on returning to it. You probably know people who have families like that or relationships like that. These are not great people at a party, but they’re going to be pretty interesting to stand around and overhear if you can.
Ehrin: I am a very excellent enabler. So it’s very easy for me to justify bad behavior of characters. And I think one of the things I noticed in watching “Succession” is that all the characters are basically not likable. But I think what you said about how there’s nothing as exciting to them as that family is really so loaded. Because there’s such deep desire in it for acceptance from their dad, and actual paternal love. And then on the surface, there’s a joy in the hijinks. They all enjoy the circus of it, and there’s something about the combination of those two things that makes them just likable in spite of their characteristics.
The real-life people in these settings are frequently asked if they’ve watched “Succession” or “The Morning Show.” Do you pay attention to their reactions at all?
Armstrong: No. I think it could get unhealthy. There’s a bunch of people who are like this in the world. And we harvest stories from all of that stuff. We make sure we read all those stories because it’s money for free, frankly. But you don’t want to get into a gossipy relationship with that stuff. It’s brilliant raw material. They’re a whole thing in the real world. This is the show.
Ehrin: I have had a lot of people who work in the industry as local reporters or people on morning shows say, “You got it so right.” That was nice because I actually knew nothing about it.
Another similarity in both your shows is that both of them could be called “succession” because it’s about a changing of the guard and the people who are reticent to let go of power.
Armstrong: If someone asks me what the show is about, I’d say, family and power. We’re in quite a political moment as cultures, concerns about the nature of power, how it works in society. I think that naturally is reflected in people’s work and certainly in “Succession” and “The Morning Show,” too. It’s a great theme. This point of unsteadiness, it’s scary. What if somebody comes and grabs the crown? What if someone says you’re not really the king? I think they’re inherently dramatic moments.
Ehrin: I think every story is the story of power, too. Power and sex are the two big motivators for our species. You have power struggles from the day you are born. Everything is a power struggle. Every single human transaction has power in it. It’s a very human, relatable concept to people. High school is all about power. Marriages are about power. Jobs are about power. That’s why it has a grandness to it. And also a complete stupidity to it. Which is very attractive for a writer.