Mindy Kaling’s Late Night Is a Workplace Comedy in the Guise of a Cozy Romcom.
Late-night TV is, notoriously, male-dominated, but in "Late Night" Kaling imagines a world where the King of Late Night is actually a Queen. (This choice has real satirical bite.) Newbury has been hosting Tonight for 30 years. Her office is lined with her Emmy Awards. She has refused to compromise her standards (as she sees it), and has rejected social media, memes, viral videos, etc. She's British, so accusations of her being an "elitist" don't bother her in the slightest. But her ratings going into a nosedive ... that does bother her. Katherine's writing staff is made up of men. She has never gotten to know them, and many of them have never even met her. The president of the network (Amy Ryan) wants to replace Katherine with a Dane-Cook-type (Ike Barinholtz), whose "provocative" routines might give the show some juice. In a panic, Katherine - known for not liking women - orders her right-hand man Brad (Denis O’Hare) to hire a woman, stat. It's the most brazen "tokenism" you can imagine. Molly Patel just happens to be interviewing with Brad on that very same day. She has no experience, but you can see Brad considering the optics, ticking off the boxes: she's a woman, and she's a woman of color. She's hired.
Late-night TV shows are notoriously male-dominated, but in this “Late Night”, writer Mindy Kaling imagines a world where the King of Late Night is actually a Queen. Directed by Nisha Ganatra with gleaming prime-time plasticity, Late Night is a romantic comedy between two women and their work.
We’re first introduced to Katherine Newbury, played by 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. When her ratings suddenly go into a nosedive, she is immediately bothered and decides to get to know her never-before-met all men writing team. It becomes worse when the president of the network wants to replace Katherine with a Dane-Cook-type whose “provocative” routines might give the show some juice. In a panic, Katherine orders her right-hand man, Brad (played by Denis O’Hare), to hire a woman, stat. Luckily, Molly Patel, played by Mindy Kaling, is interviewing with Brad on that same day. Even though Molly has no experience, Brad is considering the optics, ticking off the boxes: she’s a woman, and she’s a woman of color. She’s immediately hired.
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 rom-com. Her guilelessness and willingness to criticize the status quo of Katherine’s show don’t win her any brownie points. But Molly might be the only one in the room who knows how to salvage the show.
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. 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.
Even though Late Night 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.