The first season of ‘The Morning Show’, Apple’s lavish scripted series about the juicy world of morning television, took an abrupt turn in November 2017, when ‘Today’ host Matt Lauer was fired for sexual misconduct.
Production of the show was already underway, based on journalist Brian Stelter’s 2013 book ‘Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV’. Stelter’s book focused on Lauer, Katie Couric and other former co-hosts of NBC’s ‘Today’ program, and their battle with ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ to be the nation’s highest-rated breakfast TV show. When the book first went to print, the biggest recent scandal on morning TV had been the ousting of Ann Curry after a short-lived stint as ‘Today’ co-host. But then Lauer’s sex scandal was revealed, and everything changed.
The news shocked millions of Americans who had grown up trusting the journalist’s wholesome image and made headlines around the round, with the reverberations felt all the way to the fictional Morning Show newsroom. The script for the series, which was one of the most expensive in history and the headline act for the launch of the Apple TV+ streaming service, was was torn up and, to use the journalistic jargon, renosed to become a story focussing on the impact of #MeToo on the victims, the offenders, the media industry and the world.
The first season of ‘The Morning Show’, released in November 2019, began with the male anchor Mitch Kessler, played by Steve Carell, being fired for sexual misconduct while his ‘TV wife’ of 15 years, co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), has to deal with the fallout, and the arrival of a new co-host Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon). Almost two years later, the second season is released on Apple TV+ next month, and will begin in the wake of Alex and Bradley joining forces to bring down the head of TV network UBA for covering up Mitch’s sexual harassment. But more world-altering breaking news stories — this time the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement — have changed the course of the story during filming once again.
As the most prominent Black male cast member in the series, these real-world events were of particular significance for Desean Terry. And they have also shifted the narrative for his character Daniel Henderson, one of the more serious journalists on the fictional morning news team.
“We started filming the second season back in early 2020, and shot about two episodes, then Covid came into the picture,” Desean explains. “We were shut down until October or November, and then we came back to a brand new world, and a brand new script. We started again from day one. Just like how your 2020 plans changed, the same thing happened with ‘The Morning Show’. I had a trajectory of what was happening with Daniel, and it completely changed. And we did the same thing, we adapted it to what was happening.
“Daniel is very much in the forefront of these conversations about Covid, because as he has already expressed in the first season, he is a serious journalist. And what is interesting with Covid is we have these medical and economic circumstances, and also very personal journeys that the characters go through, and all this stuff that is exposed.”
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement was the most significant event in many of our personal journeys during 2020, making millions of people think harder about the impact of systemic racism in the world around us. The first season of ‘The Morning Show’ touched on Daniel being overlooked to replace Mitch as the show’s main anchor, despite appearing to be next in line as the host of the program’s weekend edition, and asked the question whether race played a role in that. And the increased focus on anti-racism in the real world has made this thread even more central to season two.
Desean says, “One of the exciting things for me, working on ‘The Morning Show’, is to really engage with conversations that are current and important and are really a part of our lives.
“One of the things that comes up through Daniel is some of the injustices that he’s seeing in the workplace. So in the second season, people can look forward to the show having those types of conversations that we were having in America and around the world. I can’t stress the importance of representation enough. Daniel is tied into that conversation as a Black man in this world, looking for visibility and seeking some change.”
And for Desean, working on the show was therapeutic as he tried to make sense of the world during a particularly testing time. “During the hiatus, there was specifically a two-day period that was just really tough for me,” he says . “And it was really tough because every time I turned on the news, it was just a constant barrage of just headlines of Black people being killed by Covid, by economic circumstances, by police brutality. And for the first time in my life, I said, ‘I can’t turn on the news.’ It just felt really traumatizing.
“And so as tough as that was to experience, I was really grateful for ‘The Morning Show’, because we were having these conversations, and me as an artist could then have that outlet. It became this fusion point of my personal journey and the art. I’ve always enjoyed working on Daniel, because there’s so much shared space between us. But this season felt particularly personal because he is talking about the things that I am personally experiencing as a human being and an artist.”
Desean has certainly earned his position on this very prominent platform, starring in one of the most opulent shows in TV history, featuring some of our generation’s biggest screen stars (the first season was reported to cost $15 million per episode, approximately the same as the final season of ‘Game of Thrones’). The 41-year-old has appeared in dozens of shows in one-off and bit part roles before landing this gig, his first lead TV series character. And off screen, he has been playing a prominent part in the Los Angeles community, mentoring inner-city kids and helping them find their voice through theater and the arts.
He is the founder and artistic director of Collaborative Artists Bloc, a theater company focused on bringing performing arts experiences to communities of color. In fact, he found out he had been hired for ‘The Morning Show’ role while standing on the top of a ladder trying to hang a projector for a play he was putting on about police brutality at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a community center in the South Central area of Los Angeles that was founded after the Watts Uprising in 1965, when the area was given some funding for arts and community programs following protests over racial discrimination.
“I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and so one of my passions has always been to give back as much as possible to those communities,” he says. “Because I’ve been blessed to have amazing mentors. And if someone didn’t do that for me, I wouldn’t be in the place that I’m in.
“The Collaborative Artists Bloc focuses on social justice work through the arts. The purpose of our company has always been to put black and brown people at the center of our narratives. It doesn’t happen too often, and I understand the repercussions of that. And I also understand the empowerment that occurs when black and brown people do see themselves at the center of the narratives, and we can talk about issues that are specifically impacting black and brown bodies, black and brown psychology.
“This work just feels necessary. When we were doing the show about police brutality in Watts, we had a talkback session afterwards and a woman in the audience told us she lost her nephew to police violence that day. So I’d love to say it feels so wonderful to do this work, but it just feels necessary.
“It’s seven miles from Hollywood to South Central but it feels like there’s an ocean between them, because it’s a completely different way of living. Hollywood is the entertainment capital of the world, but we should be ashamed that there are not more opportunities for black and brown people to participate in that. It’s getting better, but the disparity is still huge. So hopefully more people will start to jump on board and really invest in a creating a better future.”
Among Desean’s mentors were his single mother, Deborah, who was one of the owners of the first braid shop in Los Angeles, Anette’s Braids. She taught her son – who has two siblings on his mother’s side and 12 on his father’s – his drive and entrepreneurial spirit. “I didn’t realize what a miracle she was until I got older,” he says. Other mentors included Courtney B Vance, the award-winning veteran actor who Desean calls a “father figure”, and helped guide him throughout his time as a student at the prestigious Julliard School for performing arts in New York, and then in his subsequent career. Another influential person who encouraged Desean to follow this path into acting was Deidre Weston, who founded Faith Acting Studios on the corner of Stocker St and Crenshaw Blvd in South Central LA, where he attended his first drama summer camp as a teenager.
“The arts have the potential to be transformative for the person who is living or telling the story, and I also for the listener,” he says. “At 14 years old, when I’d got on my mom’s nerves a bit extra that summer, she shipped me off to acting camp. And all of a sudden, my shy, troublesome self experienced the exact same thing that I’m now trying to communicate through my theater group: That if I take center stage here, and I begin to speak, you listen. And I can impact you or I can change you.
“And it’s funny, because that’s the thing that Daniel is searching for too in ‘The Morning Show’. He understands the power of the platform. His ambition and desires connect to the heart of my personal mission as an artist. So it’s a cool full circle moment to be playing such an exciting character in such an important world right now.”