Even though it deals head-on with such issues as workplace diversity, sexism, and the craven nature of network television, Late Night takes place in its own kind of fantasy world. It’s a world where a woman is the host of her own late night network TV talk show, and she’s been in that position long enough that people are starting to worry that she’s too much of a relic of a bygone era. It’s a premise writer-producer Mindy Kaling must sell in order to get to Late Night’s rich central dynamic: Two women at different ends of the entertainment industry power structure. And since Late Night is such a zippy, comfortable watch, we’re more than wiling to go along with it — I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in that world?
Directed by Nisha Ganatra with gleaming prime-time plasticity that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen an episode of The Mindy Project, Late Night is a romantic comedy between two women and their work. We’re first introduced to Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson,) a dry, unsmiling, extremely British veteran comic who has been the face of Late Night with Katherine Newbury for going on two decades. She’s got an office dripping in Emmys and a supportive, if ailing husband (John Lithgow,) but not a lot of friends — she hasn’t even met most of her all-white-male writing staff (which includes Reid Scott, John Early, Hugh Dancy, just to name a few). Sensing this is a bad look, and that there’s a perception out there that she hates other women, Katherine’s producer makes a spur-of-the-moment hire of Molly Patel (Kaling), who up until that day had been employed at a chemical plant in Queens owned by the network’s parent company.
It’s a cartoonishly exaggerated dramatization of the “diversity hire,” and the other staff writers don’t take too kindly to it, grumbling to each other about how when you’re a woman of color in Hollywood, every door opens to you. It’s such a boy’s club that the women’s restroom isn’t even the women’s restroom anymore, and Molly’s first days on the staff go as smoothly as any ingenue’s first day at the big company goes in any romcom. Her guilelessness and willingness to criticize the status quo of Katherine’s show doesn’t win her any brownie points. But Katherine, having learned the network is planning on replacing her with shock comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) due to low ratings, goes into crisis mode, introduces herself to her staff, and starts trying to figure out how to salvage the show. And of course, Molly might be the only one in the room who knows how to do it.
What makes Late Night — otherwise a largely predictable story in a familiar mold — really pop is Kaling’s script, which is at the blunter and frankly more exciting spectrum of what Kaling has proven herself to be capable of in her writing career thus far. (The freedom of an R rating helps things.) Late Night isn’t content to just be a story about a woman of color succeeding despite the odds, it’s also cynical about and challenges such psychologically simplistic narratives. The most piquant scene takes place at a PR-repair party at Katherine’s house, where Molly, realizing Katherine is getting hounded by reporters for her hiring practices, steps in to make herself useful as the token, happily posing for the photo-op as Katherine Newman’s New Brown Hire. Molly is a sort of Pollyanna figure, but she also knows how the world works, and how to make herself useful, a tough dichotomy that Kaling’s script and performance pull off.
Emma Thompson is sharp and complex as Katherine, a highly unlikable, very funny woman with a unhappy personal life, who sidesteps Miranda Priestly territory by being considered as a human first, boss-from-hell second. The film takes the time to actually interrogate the source of her internalized misogyny and doesn’t just chalk it up to her being a caricatured supervillain. Katherine is a powerful woman in Hollywood who has broken down walls, as well as a nearly unredeemable jerk, who, as it’s later revealed, has made some unscrupulous decisions in her personal life. It’s easy to imagine the version of this show where Molly must ingratiate herself to a white male boss with a similar temperament, and it wouldn’t be as interesting. Late Night is a Devil Wears Prada for TV writing that’s more neurotic and has more on its mind — these are comedians we’re dealing with, after all.