Photo Credit: by Sundry Photography/Shutterstock.com
It’s a familiar scene, but this time it is happening as part of an episode of The Morning Show, the series Apple chose to debut its new Apple TV Plus streaming service last fall.
At the height of #MeToo activism, a beloved white male news anchor has been accused of sexual misconduct. Surrounded by three men and one woman—an agent, an accountant, a lawyer, a publicist—and with his wife hovering in the background, Mitch Kessler, co-host of The Morning Show, is at home, and watching his life dissolve, in real-time, on television.
“First and foremost, I want to offer our sympathy and support to the women,” Alex Levy, Mitch’s on-screen co-anchor, says into the camera, oozing empathy. “We are devastated that this happened on our watch. And our hearts are with you.”
“She’s throwing me under the bus,” Mitch says, astonished.
“And while I don’t know the details of the allegations,” Alex continues (later, we will learn that she knows many of the details, although not all of them, and that she also had a brief affair with Mitch), “I understand that they were serious and that keeping Mitch on was not an option. We know he was part of our family.” And the viewers too, Alex assures them, “are part of this family. And we will get through this. Together.”
Mitch’s life, as he once knew it, is toast. And yet, he insists that everything can be fixed because he has not done this thing he is accused of. “They can’t just take my life away from me based on hearsay,” Mitch shouts, unbelieving. It isn’t hearsay, his attorney mumbles. There are “documented complaints.”
“Documented complaints about what? That I had affairs?” Mitch bellows, his body shaking with rage. “Since when was that a crime? No, no, no, no, NO!” he says, slipping into a full adult tantrum. “I didn’t rape anybody!” he insists. “You know what I did? I fucked a couple of P.A.’s and assistants. I didn’t hold a gun to anybody’s head. It was consensual! Most of them came on to me.”
As The Morning Show continues without him, separating him from his career with every sentence Alex utters, Mitch picks up a fireplace poker and smashes the TV screen until it goes dark and hangs crookedly off the wall. His wife Paige reappears: perfectly coiffed; she informs him coldly that she is taking the children and will file for divorce.
Mitch whirls around to face his entourage and screams:
The phrase “Me Too” was first coined by African American community organizer Tarana Burke as a form of consciousness-raising and community formation among women affected by sexual assault. In 1997, when Burke was working in Selma, Alabama, a little girl told her about being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, and Burke found herself unable to speak. Later, she realized why. She, too, had been sexually assaulted as a child and never come to terms with it. But she might have relieved the child’s loneliness, she realized, by responding: “me too.”
In 2006, Burke launched the MySpace page that popularized the phrase, and the following year, her activism resulted in the creation of Just Be, Inc., an organization aimed at the wellness of Black girls. In 2017, actress Alyssa Milano moved #MeToo onto Twitter as a hashtag, this time to call out sexual violence in the media industries. From this followed a wave of accusations, and firings, of men in film, television, and print journalism.
The Morning Show takes on that moment in all of its clarity and its ambiguity. The show was executive produced by Reese Witherspoon, who plays Bradley Jackson, a truth-telling outsider journalist whose persistence uncovers the facts of what happened at the network; and Jennifer Aniston, long seen in anodyne sweetheart roles, who excels as the superlatively bitchy Alex Levy.
But The Morning Show is not just about any #MeToo scandal. Aniston’s Levy could be based on numerous female morning talk show hosts—something that says volumes about women’s interchangeability and status in television. She has wholesome good looks; off-camera, she is selfish, ambitious, mean, and deeply anxious that she is aging out of an industry to which she has given her life.
But Steve Carell, as Mitch Kessler, could not be just anyone. He bears an uncanny physical resemblance, accentuated by a buzzed haircut and beard stubble, to The Today Show’s Matt Lauer, fired from the prestigious NBC morning broadcast in 2017 for, among other things, trapping a network employee with a remote locking device and raping her until she passed out. NBC suppressed what they knew about Lauer for years, denying it until it was no longer possible to do so.
Similarly, the fictional UBC president Fred Micklin maintains his own deniability until a final broadcast, where Bradley and Alex rush to report the story truthfully before the network pulls the plug. Most critically, Micklin silences Hannah, a young African American staffer who has come to complain about being sexually assaulted by Kessler at a remote shoot, by preemptively offering her a promotion. The deep shame Hannah carries with her from this moment will, in the end, consume her.
The Morning Show was in development before the Lauer scandal broke at NBC. The writers and producers pivoted quickly to make the story as authentic as possible in its details—but also authentic in its dilemmas. Hannah’s decision to accept the promotion and not tell her story is one. Then there is the button under Kessler’s dressing room desk, as there was in Lauer’s. No one ever mentions it. But in a brief vignette in the hours after Kessler’s firing, we see Mia, his African-American former producer and lover, slouched in his chair clicking the button, her eyes sad and vacant.
The number of women who did consent to have sex with Mitch muddies the narrative in a satisfying way. But The Morning Show also underlines that the consent of some women allowed Mitch to believe that all of his sexual transactions were “consensual.”
Similarly, we see how publicity about some of the grossest #MeToo transgressions create cultural space for rationalizing other forms of predatory and cruel behavior. Kessler’s self-defense is laced with references to disgraced filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, whose crudeness and violence was well-known in the media world.
If Weinstein is the definition of a sexual predator, in his own mind, Kessler can’t be. “I didn’t jizz into a plant in front of somebody!” Mitch pleads at one point. At another, Kessler explains to an old friend, a filmmaker who has been canceled and wants to make a documentary that exposes the women of #MeToo, that he won’t participate in the film because, as he says calmly, “You are Harvey Weinstein. I’m not.”
The Morning Show reminds us powerfully of another ambiguity inherent to workplace sexual harassment: for every perpetrator, there are many more silent collaborators who turned away or helped to cover up the damage. We see women being transferred into Kessler’s orbit arbitrarily (although they are told it is because they are doing good work), and women whisked away because, after he is done with them, they make him ”uncomfortable.” Alex Levy throws Mitch Kessler under the bus, not because she is a feminist, but because she is a good network soldier and wants to keep her job. But she is also protecting herself, and her role in the coverup. From that first broadcast, it is clear that Levy knows things, as do a great many others.
After Kessler is fired, the next nine episodes will reveal, through flashbacks, the long road that Mitch and The Morning Show’s “family” has traveled to this moment. We will watch the family unravel, as Bradley Jackson pokes at the truth: she forces them to actively lie and shut her down, not to protect Mitch Kessler, but to protect themselves. This journey will raise the questions that lurk behind so many real-life #MeToo scandals.
Can the word “rape” describe the experience of a woman who submits to sex, but only because she is so frightened she lost her capacity to move or speak? How do co-workers agree to collectively lie about or ignore sexual predation without even consulting each other? What is the nature of the humiliation when a young woman is pulled into a powerful man’s orbit as an ambivalent sexual accomplice?
And how do we know when we have learned the truth?
#MeToo purports to tell a truth that approximates what we know about workplace harassment in the real world: victims of sexual assault rarely (some would say never) lie, sexual predators usually lie, and powerful corporations always lie until telling the truth is the only choice they have left.
And yet The Morning Show is so good that, for about half of its ten episodes, we experience that uncertainty and ambiguity that always dogs a #MeToo allegation until we have divided up into opposing teams: how can we possibly know what really happened?
Steve Carrell–in full, charming, sociopath mode–performs Mitch Kessler’s sense of his own self-righteous innocence so completely that it seems possible that he really is being falsely accused. He is so persuasive that it is equally easy to forget that news anchors aren’t really journalists: they are actors who read words written by journalists.
But it is also important to note that the character Carell is playing, Kessler, in this crisis, is not acting. His outrage is real. This is partly because he is a narcissist and doesn’t know, or care, what consent is; whether the women he targeted gave it; or how they felt when he discarded them and they were abruptly moved to jobs where he no longer had to see them regularly. But he is also outraged because he kept no secrets: it was the rules that changed.
Kessler’s expressed belief in his own innocence is so profound that it seems genuinely possible for several episodes that he could be the victim of a corporate political correctness frame-up. That is until we hear from a fragile young woman whose sense of self-worth was so eroded by Kessler’s repeated sexual demands that she had to quit her job at the network.
The truth that will eventually emerge from this confession is a complex one. Because of his high value to the show and thus to their careers, Kessler’s television “family”—from the lowest production assistant to the network president—covered for him, implicitly and explicitly. Everyone was complicit in facilitating whatever the star needed and wanted—including sex–and in the end, they were complicit in his destruction of lives. In different ways, by the final episode, Kessler and his replacement, Bradley Jackson, will make the whole dysfunctional Morning Show family, the network, and the show’s audience, recognize that complicity.
And Alex Levy will, for the first time, choose someone else’s well-being over her own, apologizing on the air for her complicity in Kessler’s and the network’s lies.
The Morning Show is about #MeToo, but more importantly, it is about moral choices, small and large. It is about the ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in workplace sexual harassment, ongoing uncertainty about fact and motive that #MeToo seeks to stabilize. This ambiguity often causes women to struggle in the moment and for years afterward to define what has happened to them in these often life-changing situations. “Victim or Vixen?” Monica Lewinsky asked in a 2018 article in Vanity Fair about her brief but notorious affair with President Bill Clinton. “The person at the epicenter of the experience doesn’t necessarily get to decide.”
The Morning Show reminds us that most of us don’t get to decide who we are to other people: a sexual harassment scandal only amplifies that. But #MeToo gives us a special charge: “believe all women.” Can that act of empathy and its political conviction give us the truth, justice, or a guide to how a community reckons with its role as a supporting cast to a sexual predator?
I don’t think so. From inside the industry that has recently given workplace sexual harassment the greatest visibility, The Morning Show refuses certainty without displacing guilt. It centers the ambiguity of modern sexual harassment scandals by introducing us to its component parts: self-interest, disengagement, plausible deniability, fear, and shame.
Finally, it asks us to take seriously what the women, and men, at the center of #MeToo accusations believe about themselves and, most importantly, what the rest of us have turned away from too.
Claire Potter is the Co-Executive Editor, Public Seminar and Professor of History, The New School for Social Research. This essay first appeared on Political Junkie, her Substack about politics and media.