tv review

2 Dope Queens Is a Terrific Newcomer to Late-Night TV

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson. Photo: HBO

If you like 2 Dope Queens the podcast, you’ll like 2 Dope Queens the HBO series. Like most things on television, it’s possible to watch the four-part comedy special anytime you like. But there’s something that feels especially right about watching it, as HBO intended, at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night. While hosts Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, along with the talent that joins them, are essentially here to perform, they do so in a way that feels like they’re engaging in a loose, late-night conversation with their audience. You want to unwind with 2 Dope Queens over a drink, but maybe only one, because you want to keep your mental faculties sharp.

The HBO series is essentially the same as the WNYC podcast that came before it, just a little fancier and, obviously, more visual. Williams and Robinson engage in casual verbal volleys on topics ranging from their first New York City apartments to bad dreadlocks. Stand-up comedians pop in to do short sets, and high-profile guests show up to chat with the Queens. But now, all of it is happening at Kings Theatre on a stage that has been stylishly designed to resemble a Brooklyn rooftop, albeit one that features “2 Dope Queens” spelled out in large, illuminated numbers and letters. Williams and Robinson, who always look chic, also look extra put together for premium cable. In the middle of the first episode, I actually paused my screener to look up the shoes Williams was wearing. (I still don’t know where she got them.)

Essentially, 2 Dope Queens is a late-night show doing valuable things that the major network late-night shows do not. First and foremost, it puts two black women in an authoritative role as emcees and tastemakers, which is most welcome. Second, its conversations have a much more organic vibe than the sit-down interviews on the Tonight Show or Late Show. Williams and Robinson have clearly planned out some elements of their discussions: When Jon Stewart appears in the first episode, for example, they ask him to play a game that involves blind taste-testing pizza, which must have been orchestrated ahead of time. But there’s an improvisational air to the proceedings that suggests everyone is more comfortable just going with the flow. Surely it helps, too, that the episodes are directed by Tig Notaro, who obviously has a feel for capturing the spontaneity of live comedy.

I’ve seen the first two episodes of 2 Dope Queens, and of the two, the second is stronger. That’s partly because the comedians who appear in that hour — Aparna Nancherla, a regular on HBO’s Crashing who also provides the voice of Hollyhock on BoJack Horseman; Rhea Butcher, co-creator of the late Seeso comedy Take My Wife; and Fresh Off the Boat writer Sheng Wang — are consistently great. But the Queens and their guest, Sarah Jessica Parker, also stay more laser-focused on the identified theme of the episode: “Hair.”

When Robinson and Williams invite Parker to ask any questions she may have about black hair, it starts a conversation about how African-American women manage their dos, one in which the Queens freeze out any attempts to giggle at the Divorce star for her lack of knowledge in this area.

“I don’t know, um, how it stays. How you can have really incredible …” Parker starts, trying to formulate a question.

“Everyone shut your mouths!” Robinson shouts at the audience, hearing light laughter.

“This is a safe space!” Williams adds.

“You know that I’m about to ask the very thing that you don’t know either,” Parker says wryly to the audience.

“Oh, yes!” Robinson cheers. “Drag them, Sarah!”

To be clear, white cluelessness is still a ripe subject for eye rolls in 2 Dope Queens. The first episode kicks off with the ladies running down a list of the various white people who should apologize to them on live television. (“Here’s one,” Williams offers. “The white guy at the bar who says, ‘I love chocolate.’”) Much like they are on their podcast, Williams and Robinson keep it real but inclusive. Their observational comedy is incisive, but never mean.

Although there are only four episodes of 2 Dope Queens, the ones I’ve seen make a convincing case that we need to see Williams and Robinson in late night on a more regular basis. Here’s another reason why: There are two of them. Anyone who listens to podcasts — or, for that matter, anyone who used to watch old ’70s variety shows like Sonny and Cher — knows there’s something special about watching a program co-hosted by two people who really know how to catch each other’s passes. Yet most late-night shows are solo acts with the occasional sidekick or bandleader who acts as a sounding board for jokes. We rarely see hosting partnerships that are true partnerships. The late-night talk format could use some shaking up, and the best way to shake it up on a more regular basis might be to send in the Queens.

2 Dope Queens Is a Terrific Newcomer to Late-Night TV