Tag Archives: The Morning Show

Running the show

Showrunners from some of the biggest dramas in the US come together to discuss their approach to the demanding role, how the industry is changing and how they seek to reflect current events and culture in their work.

While the role of the showrunner in television drama is spreading around the world as writers become more involved in the production side of making series, it is a title that still remains synonymous with the US industry.

Writers, creators, directors, producers, problem solvers – showrunners take the lead on all aspects of the series they are working on, making decisions on both the creative and business sides.

During the recent digital edition of Canada’s BANFF World Media Festival, six showrunners came together to share their experiences of working on series including Pose, Unorthodox, The Morning Show, Vida, Dead to Me and Little Fires Everywhere.

Showrunning means wearing a lot of hats…

Kerry Ehrin, showrunner and executive producer of AppleTV+’s The Morning Show: When I started showrunning, I remember texting Jason Katims, who I had worked with previously as a producer on Friday Night Lights, and he said, ‘Showrunning is basically like you live on an island by yourself. But no one comes to visit you except to complain.’
That’s my emotional definition of showrunning. It’s a creative management job. You have to wear two hats: you have to be able to access these incredibly vulnerable parts of yourself on cue, because there’s a schedule to keep up with; and you also have to be able to step away from that and be incredibly analytical and managerial. But essentially it’s a management job that also requires you to be incredibly creative.

Tanya Saracho, creator, showrunner and executive producer of Starz series Vida: I directed half of this [third] season and it just supported the showrunner job. I got told in the first year by an executive that I was responsible for every frame that I delivered. I took that really seriously. I never left set. It just stayed in my mind, so the directing part was just natural. And there was no middle woman to have to convince and pitch to.
It was faster, but it also allowed me to be in control and deliver every frame and just be responsible for that. Basically, you’re responsible for everything as a showrunner.

Steven Canals, co-creator and executive producer of FX’s Pose: When I think of showrunning or the showrunner, the first word that comes to mind is ‘visionary.’ What’s so important is that, as a showrunner, you’ve convinced a network and a studio that you have the goods to take this project across the finish line.
At every point, you always have to have that vision at the forefront [of your mind] and be able to clearly articulate that to all the individuals who are collaborating with you to help you get that project across the finish line.
The first season, I made a very concerted effort to be focused on the success of the series because we’ve never seen black and brown queer and trans people on television in this way before. Like most individuals from historically marginalised communities, whether you’re a person of colour or LGBTQ or a woman, you think if this show isn’t successful then you are somehow closing the door, at least in the eyes of all the gatekeepers in our industry, from all the other queer people of colour who have stories to tell as well.

Showrunners learn on the job…

Liz Feldman, creator, showrunner and executive producer of Netflix show Dead to Me (pictured top): Nobody just has the skills and the knowledge to be a showrunner. It’s 11 jobs in one – you learn as you go. First I gained the confidence to be the head writer, to be the person in the room who is being the arbiter of the tone. Then you learn how to be that shepherd on set. It is your vision and you have to keep to that steadfast.
I’ve made mistakes; I learned as I went. But for the most part, I don’t think, ‘I’m a woman in this job’ or ‘I’m a gay woman in this job.’ Somebody thought I could do this, and that somebody was me first. As long as I fake it until I make it, I’m going to keep trying. And it’s OK if sometimes I fail, as long as I get back up and lead with kindness and do my best.

Liz Tigelaar, showrunner, Little Fires Everywhere: I’ve had a lot of mentors. Sometimes a mentor was someone pulling me aside and being like, ‘You have to stop pitching the same thing three times.’ Sometimes it was in the form of tough love, sometimes it was in the form of a lot of compassion and support. Sometimes it was just in the form of hiring me again and again and having faith in me.
The first time I was a showrunner was on a show called Life Unexpected. I remember standing in the room, looking at the writers, staring at the board and being like, ‘Who’s gonna figure this out?’ I always think, ‘You invited everyone to this party – you better have a lot of food and drinks to serve.’ You’ve got to be ready to host.

Make your show with people who come from the community you’re representing…

Anna Winger, creator and executive producer of Netflix’s Unorthodox: It takes a village to make a TV show, and [as showrunner] you’re the mayor of the village. That’s how it feels to me. There are all these incredibly talented people working with me but, in the end, I’m in charge of delivering the show.
I make another show [trilogy Deutschland 83, 86 and 89] and I’ve never showrun a show that I wasn’t the creator of. In both cases, they are about very specific things, and most of the actors were from the community [the show is about]. I was working really intensely with people and really listening to people who knew more than I did about all kinds of details. I’m driven by a lot of curiosity, so part of the pleasure was to work with this amazing village of people.

Saracho: I’d only been here [in Hollywood] for three years and then I got this show, so I didn’t know you didn’t do a lot of stuff, like hire all Latinx writers. That made sense to me. But the first person we hired was my Latina casting director.
I need truth in everything, in every aspect of the story. The most important aspect is the cast, and that’s where you start. None of my actors are very experienced. We cast the net wide, especially for the queer characters in my show. You have to cast a net to the communities and really engage with the community you’re trying to represent.
The DNA of who made this was so important – the writers were all queer Latinas, especially in the last two years. The directors were Latina. It matters not just because you have skin in the game but because we keep each other honest. That was the key – stories about us, by us. That made the difference.

Jennifer Aniston (left) and Reese Witherspoon in The Morning Show

Series should reflect the times in which they are made…

Ehrin: Nina Simone famously said, ‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?’ That’s a given. People who do what we do, who are creative, we’re like a vessel that just takes stuff in, repurposes it and puts it back out as something creative.
There’s no doubt all of this [Covid-19, the death of George Floyd] is going to impact everything we all do. I’ve never lived in a year like this . It’s a huge year and important, scary, emotionally moving things are happening. Of course that’s going to enter all of our work.

Canals: The best art, the best work always reflects our humanity and is culturally relevant. Shows that specifically address issues around race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion are important. I certainly always hope to accomplish this in my own work. There’s a way for us to find that intersection between education and entertainment.
I hope all the other showrunners out there, and certainly anyone who’s up and coming, will continue to keep their finger on the pulse of what the conversations are that need to be happening right now and allow that to fuel the work.
That said, I don’t know if all the work we create has to directly address what’s happening. My hope is that we don’t come out of this and then suddenly find that networks are flooded with shows about global pandemics. That’s not necessarily what we’re saying. But what are the ways within your work that you can address issues in a way that isn’t necessarily thumping your audience over the head with that message? We try to accomplish that, for example, in Pose, where we’re telling a very honest story about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Liz Feldman says her Netflix series Dead to Me came ‘from a very personal place’

Personal stories are universal stories…

Feldman: I created Dead to Me from a very personal place. It’s not an autobiographical story, but I honed in on very specific feelings that I was working through, and the way I do that as an artist is through writing.
Sometimes when we hone in on the most personal feelings, they tend to be incredibly universal. I intentionally keep the show slightly evergreen in terms of it not being a ‘ripped from the headlines’ kind of show – you’re not going to see Covid on the show. I don’t think anybody watches Dead to Me to see exactly what’s going on in that cultural or socio-political moment.
However, in this second season, I was really affected, as were all of the women in the writers room – and my writers room is all women except for one token guy – by the [cases of] child separation at the [US/Mexico] border. We wanted to tell a story about motherhood and what happens when you separate a child from their mother. Those are the kind of stories we’re going to continue to tell. In time, we probably will want to see specific stories about this moment of reckoning, upheaval and uprising for black and racial justice in this country. I think it’s our responsibility to hone into how we feel.

Winger: One of the pleasures of the way we work and of writers rooms is the collective conversation. I got into this late in life and I’m in it for the writers room. I love the conversation, I love the collaboration with other people – to have the privilege of being able to discuss what’s happening in the world through the filter of your work. How lucky are we to be able to make those projects and for them to reach the world?

Tigelaar: Little Fires Everywhere is the longest eight episodes of television I’ve ever made. It’s taken four-and-a-half years, so these conversations, societally and culturally, we’re having right now, I was fortunate enough to be having two years ago.
It’s not like you’re necessarily trying to be relevant. You can’t help but infuse everything that you personally are grappling with and seeing and trying to digest and process. That is going to come into the story. Then when you sit in a room with seven other people, you get what they’re grappling with, what they’re digesting and processing, and that’s where this beautiful work gets to intersect and happen.

Unorthodox, created and showrun by Deutschland 83’s Anna Winger

Leadership positions in television are becoming more inclusive and diverse…

Winger: Any of us who has the position to choose who’s hired, you’d better believe we’re thinking about inclusion. It’s not just about us being the leaders, it’s also about the next generation of people coming up working with us.
At the beginning, I was the only woman in the room. Now, it’s not just a question of women, it’s a question of everything, including people of colour and people of different sexual orientation and different identity. It’s changing in great ways.

Feldman: In my first job 25 years ago in a writers room, I was the only woman, and they had to hire a woman – it was a mandate. That was the only reason I was hired in the first place. Now I’m the woman who hires all the people in the room.
I’ve experienced the evolution and the progression of what happens when a woman is in charge, especially dealing with men and CIS men – you can pick up a vibe pretty quickly if they’re going to be able to handle having a female showrunner and boss. You just end up hiring people you feel that mutual respect for.

Canals: From a male perspective, what’s really important for men to acknowledge is that we all participate in a system that obviously privileges men and disadvantages women. So it is essential to think about the ways you work within the system and continue to benefit from it. Hopefully then, as a result, you’ll start to make certain choices on the projects that you’re working on, whether it’s hiring women – not because you feel like you need a token woman voice in your room, but because it’s important to have lots of different types of opinions and perspectives in a writers room – or, in the case of Pose, having a show that has a black trans woman as the centre of that narrative, or thinking about hiring practices and having female heads of departments.
The expectation is that women are going to be the ones to solve the problem, as if men are somehow removed from the conversation. It’s important that we participate, are absolutely part of creating this culture and are part of the solution as well.

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DQ Recommends: English-language drama

DQ asks some of the people who make TV around the world which English-language series they’re currently watching and recommending.

The Morning Show
The flagship series of AppleTV+ when the subscription service launched in 2019, this show paired Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon as the hosts of a morning news programme. Told from the perspective of their characters, two complicated women navigating a minefield of high-pressured jobs and crises in their personal and professional lives, the series examines the power dynamics between men and women, and women and women, in the workplace.

Carlo Dusi, exec VP of commercial strategy, scripted, at Red Arrow Studios International, says: “Despite some rather mixed reviews on release, Apple’s The Morning Show delivered gripping drama, phenomenal acting, and constantly surprising plot twists, all the while capturing the #MeToo spirit like no other show on our screens and offering an intelligent and multi-layered point of view into gender politics in the workplace, all of which makes it essential viewing for our times.”

Succession
HBO’s latest critical success, Succession charts the turbulent fortunes of media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four children as they battle for control of one of the biggest media and entertainment conglomerates in the world. The series, which won the 2019 Emmy for best drama series, blends dramatic and acerbic writing to examine themes of power, politics, money and family.

Emmanuelle Guilbart, co-CEO of APC Studios, says: “This isn’t the most original suggestion since the series has already gained much deserved hype and acclaim, but if there’s any chance you haven’t seen it yet then now is the time. It’s a brilliantly executed show and a great example of a series that makes you love and root for bad people. Unbelievable is also a really worthwhile series. This topical show is a renewal of the true crime genre and a sensitive exploration of the complexities of sexual assault.”

The Fall
A psychological thriller that pits a talented female detective, played by Gillian Anderson, against Jamie Dornan’s serial killer who is stalking his victims in and around Belfast. The BBC series ran for three season between 2013 and 2016.

Philippa Collie Cousins, drama commissioner for UKTV, says of the series: “I couldn’t watch The Fall on transmission – it scared me too much. I waited until all three seasons had finished and then devoured it over 10 days. It seems to take three ingredients at their rawest. Firstly, it really convinces you that it is based on genuine police detection and the effort to catch the Belfast strangler and his weird MO are scary because they are twisted enough to be real-life. It makes an effort in its dialogue to create genuine depth of character and the casting is pure 1950s with two movie stars playing the leads.
“Alan Cubitt’s writing is just superb. He crafts the perfect triangle of character, thriller and motive. Motives are given to both the criminal (Dornan) and those investigating the crime (Anderson). It is Stella Gibson’s humanity pitted against Paul Spector’s lack of humanity that provides the cat-and-mouse motor. However, it is always rooted, but rooted in such a complicated personal landscape that, season by season, episode by episode, you as the audience play the psychiatrist, stripping them down layer by layer until you feel that you know both of them so well. This Hitchcockian touch is masterly. As a fresh study of a woman in a male environment, it is a modern classic.”

Quiz
A three-part drama commissioned by ITV in the UK and US cable channel AMC, Quiz dramatises the notorious ‘coughing’ incident that took place on the UK version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in 2001, when former army officer Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and an accomplice, Tecwen Whittock, were accused of cheating their way to winning the gameshow.

Theresa Wise, CEO of the Royal Television Society, says: “The show I have loved recently is Quiz. Apart from feeling like a mischievous inside track into telly-land, it combined immense humanity, humour and pathos. I am a bit of a quiz addict, like many Brits, so it is immensely relatable. Plus, give me a good court room scene or scenes and you’ve got me.

Sex Education, Back to Life and more…
Tony Wood, founder and co-CEO of producer Buccaneer, says: “This has been the year of Chernobyl, Fleabag season two and a brilliant season of Line of Duty. I’d also thoroughly recommend Sex Education [pictured] and Back to Life. Both these shows were brilliantly insightful about character and the emotions that confront them. They constantly surprised and created visceral reaction that lingered long beyond the programme.”

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Rise and shine

Michael Ellenberg, the former head of drama at US premium cablenet HBO, is looking to build his Media Res production company with more big-budget shows for streamers following the success of Apple’s The Morning Show.

It’s somewhat ironic that as traditional television execs fret about tech companies coming to destroy their business plan, Apple launched its streaming service with a drama about a staple of broadcast and cable news networks – The Morning Show.

The 10-part series stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell and focuses on a fictitious daily news programme being broadcast from Manhattan, where a sexual misconduct allegation breaks apart a 15-year presenting partnership.

Michael Ellenberg

The project grew out of Media Res, the production outfit set up by Michael Ellenberg after he left his job as head of drama at premium US cablenet HBO. His timing turned out to be perfect, with a number of streaming players coming online looking for the sort of big-budget, premium drama he wanted to produce launching soon after.

Media Res is not only behind Apple TV+’s The Morning Show but is also working on an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s New York Times bestselling novel Pachinko for the tech giant.

“We were fortunate that there were a number of networks in the business of high-end series – we had a number of suitors,” Ellenberg says of his debut project. “Helping to launch a new network and service seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“The biggest change there has been in the business is there are now more homes for premium series and storytelling opportunities. The explosion of innovative work you see in the US shows isn’t through one single commissioner anymore. As a seller, what’s most exciting is that when you’re putting something together that you feel is exciting and unique, you feel fairly confident someone is going to get it.”

TV drama has had a prolonged fascination with news rooms, both newspaper and television, producing some brilliant shows – the BBC’s original State of Play – and some slightly less so – Aaron Sorkin’s uber-Sorkin cringe-fest The Newsroom. It was an area that had fascinated Ellenberg and came straight to mind when thinking of his new company’s fledgling slate.

“I’d always been a fan of the morning shows and interested in them,” he says. “In an era when America seems to want to rip itself apart, I thought it was interesting to take a look at these shows as one of the last things trying to appeal to the entire country. Everybody else has kind of given up trying to appeal to the coasts and Middle America, the cities and rural communities. What’s it like starting every day trying to represent an idea of what America is and what America should be thinking about?”

Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carrell in The Morning Show

Brian Stelter’s 2013 book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV provided further inspiration and the idea began to germinate.

“Every few years in the US, a high-profile female anchor in one of these shows goes through some horrible high-profile public spectacle where she’ll be ripped apart in the press,” Ellenberg says. “Some of the most powerful women in America have been brought to heel. I wondered whether there was an axis between the unique pressure of representing an American family and the pressures brought to bear on these amazing women anchors.”

Having worked with Ellenberg on HBO’s Big Little Lies, Witherspoon and Aniston quickly signed up to the new project, which has been renewed for a second season. “They saw the same things I saw in the project – social ideas to explore and cultural ideas to explore,” he says. “We also engage in what it means to live in the public eye. These are two of the most beloved women in the country and the ideas were very personal to them, so they were keen to explore them.”

Although Media Res has worked exclusively with Apple to this point, the company’s ‘three-year plan’ is to become an independent supplier to all the big players, similar to the way Nicole Clemens has set up Paramount Television (Jack Ryan, 13 Reasons Why, Catch-22).

The Apple TV+ drama also stars Reese Witherspoon

“The state of change in the industry is so rapid it’s hard to have more than two-year timelines,” Ellenberg says. “We’re looking to be the leading indie studio supplying sophisticated, contemporary, provocative drama and other series.

“We want to expand into unscripted and other genres, and do more international series. Both as a business matter and creative matter, we find ourselves drawn to international stories, so we’ll do more of those.”

He’s also keen to take advantage of audience willingness to embrace foreign-language content. “We’ll maybe look to do some more foreign language. We’re doing some of that with Pachinko and you’ll see us do more of that,” Ellenberg says.

“What’s pleasantly surprising is how intrepid audiences have become. Their hunger for new and different storytelling is more avant garde, adventurous and curious. They’re pushing studios, creatives, producers to be that much more innovative and creative.”

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