To narrow down the myriad of problems not only with Megyn Kelly’s debut on NBC’s perpetual cash cow of morning delights, Today, but with Kelly herself would take thousands of words and a level of patience I shall never possess. Suffice to say that after less than a week on the air, in a coveted timeslot with millions of dollars on the line, Kelly has not made a great first impression. Indeed, prior to actually appearing on Today, she had made an endless array of bad impressions, from years of aiding and abetting the spread of bigotry and falsehoods during her tenure as Fox News’s face of so-called ‘real news’ to a dead on arrival Sunday news show that was regularly beaten in the ratings by repeats of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Still, NBC persisted and the PR wagon roamed on, futilely hoping that their latest acquisition, a woman who briefly enjoyed her time as a symbol of feminine resistance after becoming another one of Donald Trump’s targets, could recapture that goodwill. So far, the results have ranged from dull to embarrassing to oddly inept, with a dash of unintentional hilarity on top, just to keep things close to interesting.
There was the moment when, while interviewing the cast of Will and Grace, Kelly brought out a super-fan of the show and asked, ‘Is it true that you became a lawyer, and you became gay, because of Will?’ Debra Messing reacted with gloriously gif-friendly expressions, then later expressed regret for even appearing on the show. Then there was an even more awkward interview with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, wherein Fonda reacted with barely concealed disdain to Kelly’s questions on her plastic surgery. Fonda quickly steered the conversation back to the film the pair were there to promote, leaving Kelly hanging and the tension at unbearable levels.
Those are the two moments that went viral, the sign of liberal Hollywood making their opinions of the former darling of conservative propaganda evident to all. Yet the rest of the show may have been an even odder experience to watch. Bobby Finger of Jezebel offered a humourous recap of one hour of viewing that highlighted the strange juxtapositions of tone and approach Kelly finds herself struggling with. The big hook of the episode was supposed to be her exclusive interview with Lyle Menendez (just in time for NBC’s strange attempt to mix Law & Order with American Crime Story, focusing on the Menendez murders), but she stumbled in trying to move from such a heavy topic to the peppy puff pieces of morning TV. Her interview style tried to mix combative with fluff, and the general atmosphere of the entire production was one of unfinished discomfort.
The obvious elephant in the room was Kelly’s attempt at grand-standing ‘for the people’ by questioning why everything had to be the Donald Trump show. Remember, this came shortly after she’d accused journalists of being biased against him and insisting her own show would be ‘uplifting’. Putting aside the obvious gall of Kelly, a woman who spent years legitimizing the unofficial propaganda wing of the Republican Party through her so-called straight-news show, pretending she’s above politics, she seems utterly unwilling to engage with the possibility that her audience may be smarter than her. What she perceives to be a candid approach to hosting, a style she’s billed as ‘speaking her mind’ and fighting for the answers, cannot help but come across as condescending, but also baffling given the context.
Morning talk shows are a deceptive mix of fluff and substance. It’s a solid four hours of programming, where hosts have to find an impossible balance between announcing the latest threats from North Korea to cutting to a demonstration on how to make table decorations with an HGTV personality. You need sincere pathos one second, then in-on-the-joke enthusiasm the next. It’s a strange environment that also breeds immense loyalty from viewers. You have your morning show that you stick with and you don’t turn it over unless something has really pissed you off. That’s something NBC have already been forced to deal with following the fallout from Ann Curry’s departure and the fleeing of viewers to the competition on ABC. Viewers want their favourites to stick around but they also love that chemistry. There are few things more awkward in pop culture than watching something when you know the cast secretly hate one another.
So far, Kelly doesn’t seem to have clicked with her ensemble. A woman who has spent years carving out a niche as the go-get-them prosecutor with no fear of confrontation, the smartest pretty blonde in a building full of CEO-mandated pretty blondes, doesn’t work well with others. You can sense her desire to break apart from the table and her co-hosts in the hope that she won’t have to deal with the inherent frivolity her work requires. Vanity Fair covered a particular instance when Kelly, alongside Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, tried to play the cynic regarding the then-upcoming solar eclipse. For some reason, Kelly decided the eclipse, a once in a lifetime event for many, wasn’t worth all their energy, and the discomfort from her co-hosts was palpable. Lauer may have been joking when he responded with ‘Who are you?’ but it’s a question NBC are probably asking right now. One week in and Megyn Kelly has no idea who she is in the context of morning talk show TV.
Who Kelly really wants to be is Barbara Walters, balancing lofty interviews of political heft with ditzy chats about sniffer dogs and getting ready for Halloween. That kind of personality requires intense perception of one’s audience, interview guest and the current context, none of which Kelly seems to have. Her major interviews so far have been dull and betrayed her image as a no-holds-barred expert of the political boxing ring, lest we forget the way she was utterly played by Alex Jones. When talking to actors, she cannot help but try to press them as if they’re on trial, and she utterly misjudges what is right for each moment, Jane Fonda hasn’t been quiet about her plastic surgery, but she was there to promote a film that had nothing to do with any issues regarding beauty or women’s responses to the ageing process. Perhaps if she’d been talking about her memoirs or the anniversary of Barbarella, it could have been a question of relevance to ask, but Kelly likes confrontation and the weight it gives to her own persona, as if she’s a journalist of exceptional bravery for asking a woman about something she’s never kept hidden.
NBC practically fell over themselves to give Kelly millions of dollars and a timeslot to kill for (which resulted in Tamron Hall leaving the show), but they seemed to have no idea why they wanted her. The post-Trump glow dissipated long before they hired her, and now they’re left scrambling for a reason to keep her around. She offers so little for viewers to grasp onto. If they want the traditional morning fare, they can go to Good Morning America or Kelly Ripa; if they want something with more substance, CBS’s This Morning has been consistently excellent in its more serious news-focused approach to morning news; if they want partisan fare, Morning Joe or the goons at Kelly’s old stomping ground Fox & Friends will suffice. NBC have greatly overestimated the appeal and warmth for a woman who was previously best known for parroting right-wing talking points unchallenged and calling it news. It remains to be seen how far she can run this gamut before ratings drop or she finds a niche that somehow works, but for now, the only reason to continue watching Megyn Kelly on Today is in the hopes that other liberal actors will offer gif-ready reactions of disdain.