Greta Lee and I are talking amidst a nation of TV watchers’ collective gasps. Some might go so far as to call it a communal brain explosion, or a shared spit take. An exclamation of “WHAT?!” belted out from couches coast to coast in a rousing chorus.
It’s been the viewing pleasure of season 2 of Apple TV+’s dizzying drama series The Morning Show.
The series is back following an award-winning first season, which functioned as an eviscerating screed against the toxic culture in the world of a.m. news programs, particularly in response to the allegations of sexual misconduct made against Matt Lauer and the system of enablers that fostered them.
That mission continues in the new season, which launched last month accompanied by what seems to be a self-imposed challenge to escalate the intensity of its jaw-dropping plot twists with each episode. Fans—and, as talking to Lee confirms, the show’s cast—have been charging through the litany of narrative grenades with a wanton glee, less strapped in for the wild ride than recklessly risking a metaphorical concussion as the series boldly motors off the next creative cliff.
“Wild? Do you think the show’s wild?” Lee, who joined the cast this season in a pivotal new role, jokes. “Like, did anything happen at all?” (Warning: Light spoilers ahead.)
Lee, who has previously appeared in scene-stealing roles on shows like High Maintenance and Broad City—and was the standout supporting star in Netflix’s superb series Russian Doll—is reacting to this season’s big moment in the third episode, which had just aired.
After being interviewed by her, Reese Witherspoon’s morning show anchor Bradley Jackson suddenly kisses guest star Julianna Margulies’ Rachel Maddow-like journalist, Laura Peterson, with the surprise intensity and seeming randomness of a bisexual Jack (or, in this case Jill) springing out of a box. (If that moment blew your hair back, just wait for what happens at the end of episode 7, which will be released on Friday.)
“I embarrassingly told Julianna, ‘Oh my God! I can't believe this! I mean, Julianna, you know you’re a gay icon right?’” Lee remembers, recounting when she rushed to Margulies on set after reading the script. “And she had no idea what I was talking about! I turned totally red. I was like, I hope that’s not offensive, and then really started backpedaling. Like, did I make that up? I know she’s a gay icon... I was gaslighting myself. But that’s an indication of how excited I was to find out what was happening.”
If Lee is an avowed fan of The Morning Show’s more energetic big swings, it’s because she could be considered an authority on the matter.
This is a series that stars the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, and Billy Crudup. It is engorged with righteous monologues about morality and the direction of culture. Episodes breeze through plot points covering the #MeToo movement, sexual assault, corporate scandal, systemic misogyny, cancel culture, racial inequity, addiction, and COVID-19. One cliffhanger, at a minimum, is packed into each episode.
It is TV’s craziest series, in the very best, most enjoyable sense of the word. And on it, Lee is playing the sanest—perhaps only sane—character.
Lee arrives in season 2 as a disruptor. She plays Stella Bak, who is brought in to be TV network UBA’s president of the news division following the volatile shake up after Aniston and Witherspoon’s anchors had gone scorched earth. Live on air, they went rogue and aired the network’s dirty laundry, including the ways top executives and talent had committed and covered up sexual assaults. The truth-telling only stopped when the network’s feed was cut.
It’s a new world—one demanding change. And so Stella, who had been head of a successful media company, is brought in to shake things up and, hopefully, bring legitimacy back to the disgraced network.
Gone is the fraternity of old white men in ill-fitting suits and their sacred oath to protect each other. She’s young, with an ear to millennial and Gen Z culture. She has renegade, maybe even rebellious ideas about the future of the company. And, most importantly, she’s a woman and a minority. Optics are everything, so she must navigate how to spark real, valuable change against the extinguishing reality that she may just be a ceremonial corporate PR pawn—a token hire.
At the time The Morning Show was airing, Lee had already found herself fascinated by the trend of young people, women, and people of color being brought into leadership positions in the wake of a cultural reckoning. She had been reading books like Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, and was “obsessed” with Elizabeth Holmes. Beyond that, she was a fan of the series.
When The Morning Show was first in development, it was inspired by CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s tell-all Top of the Morning—about the tense, Shakespearean wars between morning-show rivals on network TV. But the dramatic downfall of Matt Lauer and the seismic effect it had on the industry necessitated a recalibration. New showrunner Kerry Ehrin was hired, and the series was reconfigured to reflect the scandal.
“I loved hearing the process of how that season came together, with the rewriting of everything to accommodate and make space for #MeToo,” Lee says. “I found the way they did it very true and very uncomfortable in the right way.”
The series also became something that, until that moment, would have seemed unfeasible. In Aniston, Witherspoon, and Carell, three of the biggest stars in Hollywood were targeting—albeit through fiction—the grotesque behavior of the institutions that have bolstered and, in some respects, been responsible for their careers.
The events on The Morning Show are sourced from an amalgamation of different networks, TV personalities, and controversies. But considering that the Lauer scandal and how NBC handled it served as a starting point, it is impressive that Aniston and Carell star and are producers; these are two celebrities whose careers skyrocketed thanks to series that aired on the very network that The Morning Show is putting on blast.
“I think that speaks to the consensus of the show, that we are moving toward the unknown and the murkiness and the messiness, whether it is #MeToo, toxicity in the workplace, or gender and racial inequity and systems of white supremacy,” Lee says. “We’re moving toward all of it and not saying, okay, here are the answers. We’re really showing how much we don’t know.”
Her character is a testament to those complications—and the fact that there are no good, true answers for how these things should be handled.
Stella is brought in to address damage that was done after a catastrophic controversy at the network. It is not cynical or unreasonable to wonder whether she is a “diversity hire,” appealing to pressures put on institutions at the time to make executive suites more inclusive. It’s something that one can imagine Stella thinks about, which impacts how she does her job.
“We have a record number of young people in leadership positions, a record number of female CEOs, and we have this cry for a sea change, rehabilitating workplaces, and really making big, sweeping, efficacious changes,” Lee says. “And yet the story doesn’t end when you hire someone like me to fix the problem. The story starts with that.”
Lee is Korean-American. Her parents are Korean immigrants. She’s an actress, not a rising-star media executive. But there’s something she can acutely understand about the tension Stella straddles.
Stella understands that she was brought into a dinosaur institution to inject it with new ideas that will hopefully bring it into modernity. But she also understands that she was hired to send a performative message, and that she may not have as much power as she needs when the very people who brought her in to make change are the same ones who are desperately clinging to the status quo.
“I can understand as someone who is Asian American and has certain experiences in terms of being tokenized or being an outsider,” Lee says. “Having to navigate institutions—and mostly white institutions, I will say—it is a constant, perpetual workout that never ends. We see that for her.”
In that regard, she appreciates the nuance that the series brings to Stella’s experience as a minority in a position of power at a mostly white institution. There are assumptions that are made about her and the decisions she would make because she is a woman of color. But Stella is ambitious and shrewd about the business she’s built her career in. Wokeness isn’t necessarily her operating directive. Being successful at her job is.
Take, for example, the storyline in which Stella is in charge of naming the new co-anchor of UBA’s flagship morning program. She is personally lobbied by the show’s Black female producer, Mia (Karen Pittman), to promote Daniel (Desean Terry), who is Black and openly gay.
Daniel feels that he’s been consistently and unfairly passed over in favor of white anchors and that he’s done his time and deserves the anchor position. Mia tries to sway Stella on his behalf, using representation and the disadvantages the three of them have all experienced in the industry as minorities as leverage, suggesting that this would be her opportunity to rectify that.
But Stella rejects the pitch, and the idea that she should be making any decisions based on an obligation to other people of color at the show. Daniel doesn’t have the “It Factor,” she says. He wouldn’t be the best fit for the anchor position and, at the end of the day and no matter what uphill battles toward representation she might be waging, her job is to find the best fit. She wants to do a good job.
“She will not allow her default position to be playing the race card, and she’s very smart in that way,” Lee says.
This all circles back to what makes The Morning Show so unique, and why it was such an attractive project for her.
These are thorny, nuanced issues directly relating to Lee’s own identity and the way she, because of what she looks like and where her parents are from, is forced to negotiate her way through the world. It’s certainly rare for any TV series to delve into them with the ferocious, yet ambiguous curiosity that any exploration of such conversations about race and identity necessitate—let alone one with the massive budget, major Hollywood stars, and streaming-service pedigree that telegraphs to viewers: this show is a big deal.
But it’s also not the kind of show you would necessarily expect as it dives into that pool of discourse. Sure, there are veritable Sermons on the Mount delivered by any number of moralistic narcissists—it’s minutes into the season 2 premiere that Crudup’s character bellows, “This is a battle for the soul of the universe!”—but there’s delicious camp to it all. Things are passionate and they are complex, but they rarely seem patronizing or pedantic.
Then there’s the fact that, for all these themes, The Morning Show is, at its heart, a soap opera. Each character shoulders a sherpa’s pack of melodramatic baggage. And there’s those twists. The twists!!! It’s such a strange, transfixing blend of tone and subject matter. Whatever the reviews or audience reaction may be, Lee can’t get enough of that.
“At the end of the day, it’s entertainment,” she says. “So how do we really give due diligence to important themes and ideas and things that matter while also understanding that this is within the scope of a television show? That is meant to entertain and engage an audience? That’s always the challenge.”