SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “My Least Favorite Year,” the Season 2 premiere of “The Morning Show,” streaming now on Apple TV Plus.
It’s been almost two years since the first season of “The Morning Show” arrived on Apple TV Plus, starting its dramatic tale set the behind-the-scenes of a national morning news show with accusations of sexual misconduct against anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell). Season 1 ended with Mitch’s longtime co-anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and her new on-screen partner Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) revealing the depth of the bad behavior at their organization live on air.
In the months that have passed in the real world, the COVID-19 pandemic dominated news headlines and caused many businesses to shut down, even if temporarily. TV productions including “The Morning Show” were not spared. The series first started to shoot Season 2 in February 2020 but then shut down on March 12 to keep the cast and crew safe. As it became clear that COVID was going to be around for awhile, those behind “The Morning Show” used their shutdown to reevaluate what they wanted the second season to be.
“We shot for 13 days before COVID hit,” executive producer and director Mimi Leder tells Variety. “Nobody knew what was going on, and so our experience became mirrored in the show, in terms of it becoming acutely aware that the world was changing under our feet.”
The second season premiere, aptly titled “My Least Favorite Year,” begins in the immediate aftermath of Alex and Bradley’s explosive announcement, with Alex being ushered out of the UBA building. These scenes, Leder shares, were shot during the two weeks they were up and running in February, and they were the only piece of the premiere that remained in the new version of the story once they resumed production amid the pandemic.
The premiere episode then flashes through a brief montage of empty New York City streets before the action snap back three months, into the show-within-the-show’s studio where Bradley and hew new co-anchor Eric (Hasan Minhaj) are performing a song for their New Year’s Eve 2020 celebration.
The events of the season, therefore, take place within those three months from New Year’s, when COVID is a problem overseas but one Mia (Karen Pittman) dismisses as not worth putting on their broadcast, to just ahead of spring when it hits the U.S.
“The first season dealt with the #MeToo movement and its repercussions and turning over the rocks and seeing all of the worms underneath, and the second season deals with identity and asking a lot of tough questions regarding race and sexuality and cancel culture,” Leder says. “It was important for us to do the story of the beginning of COVID as we saw it. To look into a crystal ball and say, ‘Where is it going to land?’ — we didn’t want to presume and here we are, still in it. It was really interesting because the media missed it by a long shot.”
Although the show does not fully jump to our real-world timeline, it does jump forward in its own: January 2020 is eight months after Alex publicly quit the show, and she is still gone from it, living in Maine and trying to write a book when Cory tracks her down to bring her back.
“Alex spent a lot of time trying to be successful in reaching the pinnacle of who she is in her career. She lost her foundation in the earthquake that exploded in Season 1 and that left her to explore who she is and what she wants,” Leder says. “We explore how hard it is for women in power to understand who they really are. I think she discovers who she is in this season. She goes through an enormous journey of self-discovery, and part of her journey is the realization of the tremendous guilt she has about her past relationship with Mitch.”
All of Season 2 of “The Morning Show,” Leder says, was shot in Los Angeles. For the snow-drenched scenes of Alex chopping wood, they brought in fake snow and relied on CGI extension to add deciduous trees and more snow. “We did slight-of-hand,” she says, noting the same is true when they revisit Las Vegas or finally touch base with Mitch, who is temporarily living in a Lake Como villa.
“The Lake Como sets were at a beautiful old nunnery in Santa Madre, California, and I hired a drone unit to shoot it all in the air, and then we hired a drone unit in Italy to figure out where we could put our Italian villa. So, we hired a drone unit to shoot from all angles, and then we placed our villa in,” Leder explains.
Mitch returns to the fold in the second episode, which Leder also directed. In total, she directed four episodes this season, also including the seventh episode of the season and the finale. Of seeing Mitch again, Leder says, “There was so much to talk about, there really wasn’t space to bring him into the premiere. It just felt right to examine what had gone down, where we are in this moment in time, and then bring him in in the second episode.”
When the audience does see him again, Leder previews, “He’s in a very dark place. He’s in exile figuratively and literally. He’s in an incredible villa, but he’s in a prison of his own making. He’s lost everything, and we really wanted to explore that — and explore the idea of how you must live with your sins, how this guy is trapped with the consequences of what he’s done. We definitely do not exonerate him, but we thought it was important to explore the relationship that happened between Mitch and Alex because they’re both human beings and he was the closest person to her. It was tricky.”
Also complicated was juggling all of the new and returning elements in the season premiere, amid new health and safety guidelines. “Telling stories was a little harder to do at the beginning,” Leder admits. “Everything required a lot more focus. Once we got the hang of it — the masks, the shields — we really could immerse in our storytelling and escape the scariness of the world.”
The characters within the show do not yet have to deal with COVID-induced changes, although a sneeze behind Cory in Times Square in the final scene feels just as ominous as him receiving news that Hannah’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) family is suing UBA via a news crawl on a jumbotron. (Leder shares that the Times Square scenes relied heavily on digital technology to multiply and move around the show’s 150 extras to make it feel like thousands were out on the street.) But so far the team’s most pressing concerns are the wave of allegations against other UBA professionals that are coming to light, Maggie Brenner’s (Marcia Gay Harden) forthcoming exposé on the network, launching a new streaming service, and what to do about anchor seats when ratings are down and public trust has been lost.
“It was very important to start to lay that pipe about Maggie’s book because Alex struggles with staying relevant from the fallout of Maggie’s book,” Leder says. “She’s traumatized by her past with Mitch, which makes it harder for her to balance who she’s supposed to be at work and who the public will find out [she is].”
Bradley is the one hardest hit by the revolving anchor seat. “Bradley is the lead anchor and one of our new actors, Hasan Minhaj, comes in and is her co-anchor and there is a fallout over the evening news because Bradley’s really angling for it, but once again she’s passed over by her male counterpart,” Leder explains. “And so, now she’ll have to share the seat with Alex and once again feels like a sidekick.”
Her journey of identity this season doesn’t end with the professional, either. “Part of her theme of identity this season is exploring her sexuality, and a big part of Bradley’s identity is never fully claiming who she is,” Leder says. “She wonders if she’s good enough. So, she goes through quite a reflective time.”
One of the highlights of the new season for Leder was getting to include new voices in the storytelling. Julianna Margulies, who Leder worked with “when we were babies on ‘ER,'” she recalls fondly, comes into the show in the third episode as veteran broadcast journalist Laura Peterson. (“We needed someone to match the stature and gravitas of a Diane Sawyer-type character, who is instantly recognizable, and Julianna brought that to the part and so much more,” Leder says.) Leder had the pleasure of introducing Greta Lee’s Stella Bak, a new executive, in the premiere episode.
“She’s a more millennial voice that we brought in that challenges Cory, the disruptor, and the old guard. She challenges the way he thinks and they spar during the transition of this company,” Leder says of the character, adding that Lee herself has “such great comedic timing.”
“And it was also important to explore race because when talking about identity, there’s no discussing it without discussing race,” she continues. “We really wanted to show the world before George Floyd was murdered and talk about the frustration and anger and how it all exploded before Black Lives Matter exploded. We wanted to play into that frustration and not sugarcoat it.”
“The Morning Show” Season 2 streams new episodes on Fridays on Apple TV Plus.