Plot: The realm of late night television is controlled with an iron fist by NBC, as the network has the legend himself Johnny Carson and David Letterman with their shows, as well as the guest host services of Jay Leno. This trio represents domination of the late night time slots, but it also shows some cracks in the foundation of NBC’s lineup, as there’s too many cooks in this kitchen. The situation seems to have a resolution when Carson announces his retirement, but since both Letterman and Leno feel like The Tonight Show should be theirs, NBC finds themselves in a precarious position with huge personalities on each side. Meanwhile, CBS is poised to make a play for one of the two hosts and since NBC can’t give both men Carson’s desk, the drama is bound to escalate and conflict is inevitable.
Entertainment Value: This one is based on the real life conflict over who would succeed Johnny Carson, though most of the actual people involved in the actual events have dismissed The Late Shift. Letterman was especially vitriolic toward the movie and those involved, but regardless of how accurate it is, this is a fun, often over the top look inside the world of television. These kind of “based on a true story” movies tend to ramp up the melodrama and The Late Shift takes that to heart, though given all the egos and big personalities involved in the real life events, it isn’t hard to imagine the actual conflict being this dramatic. The over the top approach does lessen the serious aspects of the story at times, but the entertainment value is rock solid and it is fun to get an insider peek, even if it is overblown like this. The pace is brisk and despite a lot of moving parts at work, things remain streamlined and well balanced, which is no small feat given the ensemble of characters involved. If you want a grounded, accurate and detailed take on the late night war, then you might be let down, but if you want a fun, tabloid style approach, check out The Late Shift.
The leads here are Daniel Roebuck and John Michael Higgins, who play high profile, well known performers with a lot of signature traits, so to expect subtle performances was likely a pipe dream. I know Higgins claims he wasn’t doing an impression, but both men seem to be doing impersonations rather than their own take on the real men, which adds some humor to all the scenes. This is especially humorous when Letterman takes some serious turns at times, while Higgins hams it up with an over the top impression, just making it all seem ridiculous. Roebuck is a little more restrained as Leno, but he still comes off like he is part of an SNL skit, as he just seems to be doing his impression of Leno in most scenes. I can see why the ham handed leads could throw some viewers off, but I think it adds to the fun and given how melodramatic The Late Shift is, these turns don’t seem all that out place. The cast also includes Kathy Bates, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, and Ed Begley, Jr.