Late Night opens with praise lavished on Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) as a pioneering late-night talk show host who has transformed the television landscape. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, however, Katherine is facing cancellation, as her ratings drop and she clashes with her latest boss, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), who tells her that she’ll be replaced. When she realizes that her writing staff is made up entirely of white men, Katherine hires fledgling writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) to bring some diversity and fresh perspective to the show. Treated explicitly as a “diversity hire,” Molly is beset by a hostile, bro-tacular writing staff and a beloved idol who isn’t the nicest person in the world, as she and Katherine try to save Late Night.
Scripted by Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, Late Night takes a satiric perspective on the workplace comedy. Superficially, it’s a familiar story: an older, once-successful performer is out of touch with the contemporary moment and needs the help of someone younger and more vibrant to get out of a rut. But Late Night manipulates the concept to its own ends, crafting a story as much about generational conflict and female relationships as it is about male privilege.
Within the otherwise male-dominated world of late night TV (this film comes at a time when there is only one female host of a late-night talk show), Late Night depicts a complex group of female characters. Molly is very much the aspiring writer thrilled to meet and work for her idol, still chipper even when she discovers that her idol is less than idyllic. But the film doesn’t turn into a battle for supremacy, a la The Devil Wears Prada, or a union of the women against the men, or generation against generation. It isn’t enough to simply hire a female writer; Katherine has to learn to actually listen to what she says, and in so doing, rediscover her own reasons for becoming a comedian and late-night host in the first place.
Late Night covers a process of change. Its thematic undercurrents treat of the alterations in feminism from generation to generation as well as the descent into complacency that privilege brings. Katherine fought tooth and nail to achieve what she did, becoming an idol to the next generation (male and female), but fails, until now, to use her privilege to advance other women. Early on, she’s accused of being a misogynist herself (“You hate women”), and the show’s failure to keep a single female writer on staff is her failure, both in terms of her feminism and in terms of her relevancy. It’s not just the men that keep women like Molly from succeeding, but the investment in patriarchy that women like Katherine reinforce. Part of the film’s arc is Katherine coming to understand Molly not as a necessary evil, a “diversity hire,” but as a person who brings a different perspective and humor as a result of that perspective.
Late Night threads a difficult needle, so it’s hardly surprising that it sometimes misses. The third act involving, among other things, a generational conflict over a #MeToo moment, is almost dealt with incorrectly. The film succeeds at the last minute, but it comes uncomfortably close to justifying the “it’s complicated” mentality of sexual politics, which feels somewhat out of place in an otherwise progressive film. At the same time, Late Night works hard to make it clear that no one—not the privileged white men of the writer’s table, not the privileged white woman at the head of the network, not the woman of color trying to carve out a space for herself—is a representative of all. Rather, Late Night succeeds because it makes it clear that everyone is a person, with a mixture of privileges, desires, hopes, aspirations, flaws, foibles, and even, occasionally, some nearly unforgivable past acts. The viewer is asked to understand them, not as representatives of the patriarchy or of Strong Female Characters, but as human beings.
Unlike some films and shows that attempt to make a buck on the trend of female-centric stories by simply gender-swapping male narratives (see: The Hustle and, long ago, Sex and the City), Late Night attempts to advance the conversation by developing its female characters not as “not-men” but as women, with all the cultural, social, and personal experiences contained therein. These are not perfect people perfectly navigating feminism or a male-dominated society; while there are some moments of heady feminist abandon, as when Molly lays into a male co-worker for his superior attitude or Katherine silences a room full of white men so that a woman of color can speak, Late Night doesn’t trade on those moments as the endgame of its progressivism. It’s rather about a process of changing culture, of discarding stereotypes and prejudices and producing a more inclusive, diverse, and (as a result) funnier world.
Late Night posits that inclusivity and diversity make the world, and comedy, a better, funnier place for everyone. The butt of the joke is not men but patriarchy, and in mocking patriarchal norms it rejects any “us vs. them” mentality. Men and women are in this together; the success of the show depends on the writers being willing and able to listen to each other, to navigate a space where they don’t get in and then slam the door behind them. What’s more, Late Night presents this as an achievable goal. If that’s not cause for optimism, I don’t know what is.