There was a simpler time when television faced only one big question – how to fill the day with programming. A fella at NBC had an idea: Make a show for the early morning. It was called Today and went well. Next, naturally, came a proposal for filling the late-night hours. Another show was created, simply called Tonight. And since then, in 1954, the late-night arena has been an intense, weird, wonderful, mostly male world of triumphs and failures, feuds, grudges and great pop culture and political moments.
The Story of Late Night (starts Sunday, CNN, 9 p.m.) is a rich, smart and surprise-filled chronicle of American late-night TV. It starts when U.S. TV concluded at night with a sign-off and a test-pattern. Along came Tonight, and Steve Allen cracking jokes, doing stunts and improvising wildly. That was the first template. Eventually, after an embarrassing failure featuring journalists yakking, along came Jack Paar. Eloquent, funny and grippingly neurotic, Paar came to embody a late-night hosting style that would return again and again, especially as the late-night wars erupted years later. And, by the way, Paar’s walkouts, battles with NBC and his critics, could easily match some of the weirdness of the Leno/Letterman era.
What makes the series refreshing – it was much-postponed by CNN but now charts everything up to COVID-era late-night – is it charts everything from the tacky to the terrific and embraces tricky questions from the get-go. The dominance of male hosts is discussed early on and there is voluble commentary coming from many commentators, everyone from TV critics to Molly McNearney, co-head writer of Jimmy Kimmel Live! and wife of the host. There is wonderful, often startling footage from the 1950s and reminders about such figures as Faye Emerson, the movie and Broadway actress who hosted a chat show on CBS from a studio that was a replica of the Stork Club’s Cub Room.
There are distinct patterns detected in this joke- and asperity-filled saga. Most legendary hosts stumbled at first. Many have kept their political inclinations secret, including Johnny Carson, who was far more liberal and progressive than his audience knew. Egos exploded or warped as attention and success came. Often key people, largely unknown to the general audience, had enormous influence – one of those is David Letterman’s former girlfriend, writer Merrill Markoe, who shaped both his NBC and CBS shows, and is one of the most spellbinding figures in this series.
This is emphatically not aimed at obsessives, nor filled with arcane, inside-the-business information. It’s an epic story of great hatreds and glorious madness. Consider this – neither Jay Leno nor Letterman agreed to be interviewed for it, illustrating the rancour that still lingers from the battles over the post-Carson Tonight Show. But there are many existing slices of commentary from both and the perspective of others – Billy Crystal, Ray Romano, Paul Reiser, George Lopez and many producers, writers and executives – amounts to a wealth of yarns outrageous and incisive.
Bill Carter, the former New York Times reporter who wrote two bestselling books on late-night TV, is an executive producer on the series – made by the Canadian company Cream Productions – and pundit here. His knowledge and that of many colourful characters underpins what is an epic journey from test pattern to Trump-era and pandemic-period late-night TV, the most outlandish arena of them all.
Also airing and streaming this weekend
Pet Stars (streams on Netflix from Friday) is your wacky escape hatch. A slightly bonkers reality series, it follows the charming Melissa and Colleen, who run an outfit in Los Angeles that represents critters who are on TV or in the movies. It’s an interesting living, you might say. There are the pets adored by owners but, you know, crave the limelight. Or their owners do. It contains an immortal line: “This is not a normal bunny. This is a Hollywood bunny!” Good fun with critters and oddball people.
The Girlfriend Experience (Sunday, Starz/Crave, 10 p.m. two episodes) is back. Each season is different in this uniquely perturbing, visually mesmerizing series. Here Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), an American PhD student of neuroscience, moves to England to work for a tech startup. Iris is formidably smart and knowledgeable about human behaviour, especially in desire and relationships. Her area is, “To look at what happens on a synaptic level when we intimately connect with another person.” Part of her personal and professional learning curve involves taking a job as an escort offering “the girlfriend experience” to wealthy men. At the same time, she fears she’s headed for the mental state her father is trapped in. This season, written by Anja Marquardt, is exquisitely taut, frightening and never has the erotic seemed so heinously fraught.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.