“Tonight With Katherine Newbury,” the late-night network talk show at the center of Late Night, a Sundance-fave about said host (Emma Thompson) and up-and-coming writer (Mindy Kaling), is a bit of a double fantasy. For starters, there’s the sheer fact that Katherine is a woman hosting a nightly talk show at all, busting through a glass ceiling that in our reality has so far only been slightly dented by once-a-week Samantha Bee.
The second fantasy is that “Tonight” appears to be the kind of talk show the genre’s fans pine for. When we meet Katherine, there are no made-for-YouTube segments or studio tie-in bookings. Rather, her show seems downright countercultural: When badgered that an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin tanked against Jimmy Fallon playing beer pong with a Marvel Studios hunk, Katherine responds that Goodwin “could be an Avenger if she wanted to!”
But it’s also that attitude that’s led to Katherine’s situation. She’s hosting a show whose closest real-life analogue might be the Dick Cavett Show, which featured a few jokes about the news of the day and high-minded banter with intellectually diverse guests—and aired its last new episode on a broadcast network in 1986. Yet she’s competing against the likes of Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert, all of whom are masters of creating internet virality with the biggest celebrities in the world.
To the movie’s credit, Kaling, who also wrote the script, does not let Katherine off so lightly. Although she’s established as a pioneer among female entertainers — illustrated with shelves full of Emmys and Peabodys — Katherine is quickly revealed as an awful boss who’s become complacent as her show slips behind. The fact that her writing staff is composed entirely of mostly schlubby white men comes as a shock only to her because she’s never bothered to get to know her writers.
While the notion of a TV host who doesn’t know any of her writers seems far-fetched—at least to audience members who have never worked in the industry—it does allow for Molly Patel, Kaling’s character, to get her foot in the door. By flexing the efficiency she honed in a decade of sitcom writing on The Office and her own Mindy Project, Kaling introduces Molly cleverly, with an entirely believable gag about a Pennsylvania chemical plant and major broadcast network sharing a corporate parent.
As a newbie comedy writer, Molly is energetic and eager, but almost entirely unqualified to work for a titan of broadcasting like Katherine, much like an amateur astronomy buff transported into the Star Trek writers’ room would be. Naturally, most of the male writers don’t take kindly to her peppiness and constructive criticism of the show, nor does Katherine herself when she decides to take a more active role in her own production.
In interviews, Kaling has said she wrote Late Night with Thompson in mind, despite never having met the recently knighted actress, but Thompson exceeds her writer’s expectations. As Katherine, she’s witty and acerbic in TV-host mode, yet also contemplative and vulnerable when the script needs her to be, especially when interacting with her husband, who’s suffering from Parkinson’s (a wonderfully used John Lithgow).
Make no mistake, though: Late Night is fundamentally a workplace rom-com, and anyone who saw, say, The Devil Wears Prada, will see the obvious similarities. Just as Andy Sachs did to Miranda Priestly, Molly will find a workplace ally in her powerful female boss’s right-hand man (Denis O’Hare, playing Katherine’s executive producer), get entangled with the office’s resident hot guy (Hugh Dancy), and ultimately win over her colleagues when her ideas prove more effective.
But Kaling’s dialogue usually rises above the genre’s usual fare, and the supporting cast meets it throughout, particularly O’Hare and a pair of writers played by Reid Scott, late of Veep, and Max Casella. Less fortunate are Amy Ryan as a scheming network executive and Ike Barinholtz as a painfully obvious Dane Cook stand-in whose fratty, misogynistic routine feels out-of-place even in a fictional version of pop culture circa 2019. Katherine’s foray into Twitter is, well, as predictable as every other dramatization of a middle-aged person joining Twitter for the first time.
While far from revolutionary, Late Night makes a stronger argument for shaking up the overnight talk-show format than anyone who’s been working on them in the real world has in the past twenty-five years. Katherine Newbury, though deeply flawed as a private individual, is the kind of entertainer we should flock to. At her best, she’s scathingly funny, contemplative, and able to go places that our universe’s revolving cast of white guys can’t. Her signature closing line—“I hope I’ve earned the privilege of your time”—is an invitation to the movie’s audience, and a challenge to make its fantasy real.