Rise and Shine: The Morning Show’s Ethical Wakeup Call to Corporate America

December 23, 2019 Sean Freidlin

Why Apple TV’s The Morning Show is Must-Watch TV for Ethics and Compliance Teams 

With all of the money, flexibility and star-power in the world to create a television show that would be the foundation of a new streaming platform, Apple TV’s team did not take the easy road of an evergreen crowd-pleasing workplace comedy that could be passively enjoyed on a Friday night.

They chose to make The Morning Show a deep, thoughtful, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable exploration of sexual harassment in the #MeToo era, speaking up and raising concerns about diversity and inclusion, respect in the workplace, the speed and influence of social media and other hot-button cultural issues that are permeating the conversations we have in and out of the office.

If you haven’t watched it yet, this post may contain light spoilers about the plot of the show, but nothing that will detract from your enjoyment of it or the valuable lessons and perspective it may leave you with. For anyone unfamiliar with the show, it’s an hour-long, 10-episode drama available to stream on-demand on Apple TV+, and it’s one of the best start-to-finish seasons of television I’ve seen this year. The last episode of the show’s first season released on Dec. 20, 2019. 

Workplace culture stories that any organization may face

The Morning Show takes place in the studio of a fictional news show, observing the relationships, power dynamics, and culture of everyone involved, from production assistants to network executives. While the story that unfolds borrows scenarios and headlines from real-world events and may even seem familiar to certain scandals that transpired, the content of the weekly programming, as well as the sexual harassment and misconduct themes it explores, are relevant to any organization.  

The Morning Show is ultimately an exploration of how the decisions people make at work impact everyone else — big and small, top to bottom — and how a culture of complicity is created and grows until something terrible enough happens to put a stop to it.  

The show’s first-season arc is completely focused on workplace themes that should feel familiar to many of us... 

  • Fear of retaliation for speaking up 
  • Uncertainty about what’s right and wrong 
  • Tension around written company values and actual behavior 
  • Managing the aftermath of an internal scandal in a transparent and open fashion
  • Harbored feelings and secrets around culture being surfaced and confronted
  • Working with a sexual predator who never seemed very predatory to you — and coming to grips with the fact that someone you work with may not be who you thought they were 

Dynamic workplace dynamics

The central figures are Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) and Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), a popular and established tandem who have worked together for years as co-anchors of America’s favorite morning TV program. When Kessler becomes the central figure in a harassment and misconduct scandal, we see the levers moving at every level of the organization, inside and out of the studio, exploring the impact of those directly and indirectly affected.  

When Kessler is fired and an internal investigation is launched into the allegations against him, a small-town reporter named Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) — who goes viral on social media for an authentic and passionate tirade, unknowingly filmed and uploaded by a spectator at a coal mine protest she is reporting from — is brought in as his replacement. She immediately injects her fiery, fresh personality and voice into the established norms of the existing organizational culture and serves as the vehicle for change and disruption.  

The decision to villainize Carell’s character is a bold one; after all, he’s well-known for his goofy, well-intentioned character Michael Scott from The Office, whose behavior and antics reflected what may have been acceptable not so long ago but today would be controversial and scandalous. On The Morning Show, we see Carell’s character struggle to cope with his life and legacy after going from beloved television personality to disgraced serial harasser, accused of using his fame and power to regularly engage in sexual activity with coworkers.  

How can someone so good behave so badly? 

In the wrong hands, The Morning Show could have felt like a heavy-handed PSA that drives home something we all know to be true: Sexual harassment is bad. But there is nuance to the story and how it’s told that doesn’t justify or excuse Carell’s character’s behaviors, but does — somehow, delicately — create fleeting moments of sympathy for someone whose guilt is all-but-certain.  

Make no mistake: Carell’s Kessler is guilty and the show does not let him off the hook, but it does give viewers at home a clear look at how people in his position — likeable, successful and powerful men — can manage to survive and even thrive on their charm and influence despite the unethical and immoral choices they make.  

The critical episode: “Lonely at the Top”

In episode 8, fittingly called “Lonely at the Top,” we’re transported back in time, before the allegations, termination, and downfall of Kessler, to the evening of his 50th birthday party. It’s a joyous office-wide celebration that turns tragic with breaking news of the 2017 Las Vegas strip domestic terrorism attack. A team is quickly assembled to fly to the scene and report the news on location. 

What unfolds is the show’s most powerful moment. We watch a high-stakes, slow-burn balancing act that follows Kessler and junior booking agent Hannah Schoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as they walk down the strip, navigating the chaos and mourning in the early morning hours. Viewers know where things are going, but it’s still surprising and hard to watch as it happens. Conversation turns to compassion, hopelessness to laughter, and a blossoming friendship born from tragedy and circumstance leads to an invite up to a hotel room to escape the chaos of reality with a movie.  

From there, there’s a hug that lingers too long, a kiss that seems one-sided, and then, the moments that will define the months ahead. Schoenfeld resists, gives in, and wakes up next to one of the most powerful men in her company and someone she looked up to.

Upon returning to the studio in New York, she immediately reports what happened to the head of the network (Tom Irwin’s Fred), storming into his office to speak up. She’s not-so-subtly offered an immediate raise and promotion to head booker in exchange for her silence, which she reluctantly and regretfully accepts.  

Coachable moments for compliance teams

These 50 minutes serve as the lynchpin for what we’d seen in the previous seven episodes and what will follow in the next two. Schoenfeld struggles to deal with the perceived guilt and responsibility of all the lives impacted by her reporting the misconduct and starting the investigation process.  

It all comes to a head as Witherspoon’s Jackson plots an on-air interview with Kessler about his behavior and guilt, supported and facilitated by producer Chip Black (Mark Duplass) and ambitious network executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup), to bring the network’s audience into the fold of what’s really happening and how the tone set at the top by Fred has created this culture.  

In a confrontation between Kessler and Schoenfeld leading up to the final episode, we’re given the perfect encapsulation of how people in his position may justify their actions and behaviors.  

Kessler: Don’t act like a victim because it’s advantageous in this exact second! 

Schoenfeld: I just want you to understand how it might have felt for me!  

Kessler: I didn’t lure you up there. I didn’t coerce you. I didn’t trick you. You’re a smart woman, aren’t you? A smart woman doesn’t think ‘oh, he’s inviting me up to his hotel room because he wants a new best friend.’  

That exchange could just as easily be lifted from a video in any organization’s scenario-based sexual harassment training.  

  • Can Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell and Reese Witherspoon actually be untapped resources for your ethics and compliance program?  
  • Can watching this season change how you think about addressing cultural challenges in your organization?  
  • Could it serve as a catalyst in your company for a discussion about your own harassment policies?  

As the first season of The Morning Show comes to a close, it’s safe to say that it’s not just interesting, well-acted and compelling television — but mandatory viewing for ethics and compliance teams, HR professionals and senior leaders.  

The season finale ends with a mic-drop moment that definitively makes one thing clear: No matter how you may justify doing something wrong, it’s never okay, and consequences follow.  

The fact that Apple, one of the biggest companies in the world, hired the most popular actors and actresses and hundreds of other people to make a show focused on a message of ethical decision-making and invested heavily in making sure that it gets heard by millions of people is something that should give everyone a little bit of hope.  

There will always be more good people than bad people; The Morning Show is a powerful reminder that if we give the right people, voices, and stories a spotlight and platform to be heard, we can begin to make meaningful change

Originally published on LinkedIn.

 


Learn more about Ethics and Compliance Learning from SAI Global.

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About the Author

Sean Freidlin

Sean Freidlin is a Director of Product Marketing at SAI Global. He helps ethics and compliance teams build more effective and modern learning programs.

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