STREAMING WARS

Show time

Apple is turning up the heat on streaming platforms with the global launch of its Apple TV+ service on Saturday. The casts and creators of the star-studded titles it is unveiling talked to press in Los Angeles earlier this year

Ask two top Hollywood actresses if ageism is alive and well in their image-obsessed industry, and if they have faced it themselves, and you can expect a reaction.

With Jennifer Aniston, 50, and Reese Witherspoon, 43, that reaction is wordless but eloquent, the pair trading a split-second look of incredulity when they get this query at a press event for The Morning Show, their new Apple TV+ drama launching on Saturday.

The incredulity is likely because the answer is fairly obvious. And the chorus of quiet yeses and nods that follows from them and the series' showrunner and director, who are both female too, confirms this.

The new show puts these issues front and centre, and you can see why these performers - who have each reinvented themselves in their own long careers - were drawn to it.

Aniston plays Alex and Witherspoon is Bradley, two women navigating the shark-infested waters of broadcast journalism. Alex is an established host on a morning news programme millions of Americans wake up to and Bradley is a hotheaded field reporter who cannot seem to get ahead.

The two are thrown together after a #MeToo-style sexual-harassment scandal unseats Alex's co-anchor Mitch (Steve Carell). Bradley then ends up as a guest on the show when a video of her losing her temper goes viral.

The stars reveal that the series course-corrected so it could react to the #MeToo movement that began in 2017 after revelations of sexual misconduct surfaced in Hollywood and elsewhere.

"The show existed before #MeToo happened," says Aniston, who is making her first return to series television since her hit sitcom Friends (1994 to 2004) ended 15 years ago.

As we were stumbling along trying to figure out what is this narrative and what's happening, this show was writing itself as we went along. The news was helping us.

ACTRESS JENNIFER ANISTON on how the #MeToo movement that began in 2017 helped The Morning Show change its direction. She stars in the show with Reese Witherspoon

"It was always going to be pulling back the curtain on the New York media world and morning talk shows. Once #MeToo happened, the conversation drastically changed and we just incorporated it."

The star - who was the most successful Friends cast member with hit films such as We're The Millers (2013) and Horrible Bosses (2011) - says the intention was for the series "to be raw, honest, vulnerable and messy - and not black and white".

"As we were stumbling along trying to figure out what is this narrative and what's happening, this show was writing itself as we went along. The news was helping us."

But with two female characters at its core who are sometimes depicted in opposition to each other, there is the implied trope of cat-fighting to contend with, even if that was never the intention.

Witherspoon says: "I was actually asked by a reporter a couple weeks ago. 'So, your (characters') dynamic isn't Thelma & Louise and it's also not All About Eve, so what is it?'"

Thelma & Louise (1997) was a buddy movie and All About Eve (1950) deals with an ageing star and the female fan who undermines her.

"And I was, like, 'You know there's 7,000 different relationships that women have with each other? And this is just one of those 7,000 that's never been explored?'" says the actress, who won an Oscar for the 2005 biopic Walk The Line, and produces and stars in the Emmy-winning drama Big Little Lies (2017 to now).

With its two women, the series portrays more than one type of feminism too.

Even though Aniston's character is a famous TV host, she has "existed in a system that barely made space for her", Witherspoon notes.

"She felt lucky to be the only woman in that space. Then my character comes in and says, 'Hold on - just one woman isn't enough. There needs to be more.'

"So, to me, it is like second-and fourth-wave feminism - a bit of a different ideology in women that grew up at different times.

"You see clashing ideologies, but you also see us galvanising towards a singular purpose at the end of the season," she says.

The co-stars are then asked about a scene where Alex's male boss declares she is past her "sell-by date", and this is where the ageism question comes up.

In a recent interview with InStyle magazine, Aniston had spoken of being on the receiving end of ageist comments, including when people say irksome things to her such as: "You look amazing for your age."

But the new media environment is chipping away at discrimination of all sorts, Witherspoon believes.

"The reality with emerging social networking - and the idea that streaming services have empirical data that audiences want to see people of different ages, different backgrounds - it validates our audiences and it creates an opportunity for new voices to emerge and new storytellers to emerge."

Because of that, it is harder to get away with discrimination these days. She adds: "You just don't get to write women off. You don't get to write people off."

• The Morning Show is available on Apple TV+ from Saturday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2019, with the headline 'Show time'. Print Edition | Subscribe