What should we really make of Megyn Kelly Today?
You go crazy when you think about this stuff too much. But: On Tuesday, Megyn Kelly welcomed Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush to Megyn Kelly Today. They are the twin daughters and granddaughters to Presidents. Kelly took a moment to honor the eldest Bushes, George H.W. and matriarch Barbara. “The love story between your grandparents,” Kelly said, “We all watched that, and you can see it now in their older years.” The sisters were there shilling their new book, and Kelly pulled out a choice piece of family gossip. “At 92 or 93, they sleep holding hands,” said the host. There was an audible awww from the studio crowd.
Two days later, new episode, new reality. Kelly walked onstage to talk about the epidemic of alleged predatory sexual behavior, listing the various men accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, assault, or even rape. Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, James Toback, Presidents Trump and Clinton, “Even 93-year-old former President George H. W. Bush.” The crowd did not audibly anything. You wonder: What will the response be the next time Megyn Kelly brings up the elder Bush? Will the downward spiral continue, or will the cycle begin again?
Morning shows are weird, the tip of the spear for television as a powerful filter for normalizing chaos into soothing order. One second it’s Gloria Allred, the next second it’s tips for better hair care, now let’s talk about drug addiction, now let’s make skulls out of prosciutto. Megyn Kelly made her name at Fox News with the gusto of a precision missile, her eyes pointed straight at the camera, her mission never in doubt. Her new job is different. In a corporate-handshake interview this week with Seth Meyers, she explained:
I’ve been amazed at how much I have to move around. I used to be able to just sit at a desk, look into a camera, and deliver the news. Now there’s dried smoke coming into the studio, and I gotta run down a runway, and I gotta do yoga.
One could retort, she don’t gotta do anything. One could add that maybe there’s not much she should do. Not everyone is a generalist, and Kelly looks out of her element with the light banter, the performers and TV-approved “experts,” the regular people living their powerful truth via memoir and Instagram account. Kelly welcomed This Is Us star Chris Sullivan by promising, “He is known for his thoughtful, funny, irreverent interviews,” which is like introducing a commencement speaker by saying “Their hobbies include speaking and commencing!” She ended an interview with Greg Kinnear telling audiences to check out his movie, Same Kind of Different As Me. “It will make you feel like this,” she said, this vagueness punctuated with a gesture that took her arms above the camera’s gaze, so we couldn’t even quite see what gesture she was making. It will make you feel like THIS: I’ll definitely use that line, the next time I’m telling someone how much I liked their movie I didn’t see!
In her interview with Seth Meyers, Kelly advertised her specific skill as an interviewer: “I’m not shy about interrupting somebody, and sort of saying, ‘Boring!'” How I wish she would do this all the time on Megyn Kelly Today! Few TV genres are so dollhouse-constructed as the daytime yakfest, every edge sanded for comfort viewing and soft salesmanship. This china shop needs a bull!
But the persona Kelly likes to adopt is a tone of forced geniality. “MILLENNIALS!” she began a segment last Friday. “I know,” she said, eyebrows raised, “Trust me, I know.” The occasion was an interview with two millennials who failed their way to success, just like Abraham Lincoln. The conversation was bland, only coming to life when Kelly went on a tangent into her barely repressed thoughts on the whole generation. “They’re raised by helicopter parents who don’t want their cupcakes to fail,” she said. One of the guests ran a company that only employed millennials, or something, and Kelly asked her, “Do you ever get the helicopter parents calling you, saying ‘Little Dorothy’s overworked?'” Megyn Kelly: No cupcakes, no helicopters!
Kelly rose to fame pitching aggro-conservativism. Maybe there is something genuinely old-fashioned about her. Or maybe those years at Fox – working for desiccated four-chinned baby-boomer Hutts, aiming herself toward an audience old enough to forget how great the old days weren’t – left her with this strange performative persona. She is world-weary and pearl-clutching, half Archie Bunker and half Dowager Countess. In a tone of astonishment, she told the Bush daughters, “I have got to ask you about Laura Bush being a closet hippie.” (Even Eric Cartman stopped talking about hippies a decade ago.) Talking to guest Phil Donahue about his past as a feminist, she joked that, “You burned your bra,” surely the hottest female-empowerment gag of 1969. One of her guests was a woman who experienced a profound addiction to drugs and alcohol. “How do you find a drug dealer, when you’re a normal lawyer?” asked Kelly. “You’re not somebody who’s hanging out in the back alleys, I assume?” Sure, right, because who’s ever heard of successful overworked urban professionals with huge salaries who abuse drugs? Has Kelly never heard of the ’80s?
At the end of the show, Kelly will often throw to Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, almost always sipping wine, because it’s five o’clock somewhere and that somewhere is Bucharest. Kelly looks least comfortable in these moments, and one senses that (possibly) Kotb and (definitely) Gifford are trolling that discomfort. On Tuesday, the co-hosts started talking about their plans for the day, before Kotb concluded, “Just watch it, you’ll like it, we promise.” I will transcribe all of what followed for full confused clarity:
MEGYN KELLY: Good tease! We’ll see you shortly-
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: No lunch with you today, Megyn? What’s, what’s, what’s with that? You’re over me already?MEGYN KELLY: We’re, no, whaddaya, whaddaya mean, who told you that, we’re together, together as always, I’ll see you! [turns to camera] Thank you, have a great day everybod- [sudden cut to NBC logo]
I didn’t know what to expect when I started watching a full week of Megyn Kelly Today last Friday. The various media reports were dire, low ratings and strange dances. In a different reality, back in 2016, Kelly became an unlikely hero for the left – or, anyhow, a thrillingly ambiguous enemy-of-my-enemy. This is not, to say the least, the perspective anyone has now, post-Alex Jones, post-Putin, post-actually watching any random clip of The Kelly File. And so this places Kelly in a unique position right now: Many people who hate each other have agreed to hate her. Trollish right-wingers despise her as some sort of traitor; various factions of the left recall past infractions (and, maybe, are embarrassed by their momentary lapse into adoration).
This is a situation that births social media gags, and it doesn’t take much to make daytime talk shows look ridiculous. Because they are ridiculous, best to sip your morning wine and smile. But Kelly’s in an embattled moment, which maybe explains the oddly persistent paranoia. This week, there was a segment about hidden cameras that climaxed with the revelation that there was a hidden camera in the Dasani Water Bottle RIGHT IN FRONT OF MEGYN’S FACE! And there was a segment that should have just been about how some things in the bedroom can prevent a good night’s sleep, but this was pitched with the alarmist phrasing “SLEEPSTEALERS IN OUR OWN HOME!” Dr. Phil appeared on Thursday – because one of the seven habits of highly successful lifeforms is never turn down a chance to appear on camera – and Kelly assured her audience, with great good cheer, “He’s gonna bring us clues about the liars all around us!”
But there is some honor in Kelly’s current position. Anyone who can anger everyone is doing something right, even accidentally. And this week could mark a new chapter for her. Or, maybe, it’s a return to her most successful chapter, to a mode of operations that plays to her strengths. On Monday, Kelly walked onstage for a long monologue about Bill O’Reilly, and her old bosses at Fox News. The spark was a New York Times report about O’Reilly, but Kelly’s retelling spun personal. She revealed an email that she sent to Fox News top brass about O’Reilly, a complaint that was ignored. She talked about how “women everywhere are used to being dismissed, ignored, or attacked.” She talked about the vindictive legacy of deceased toad Roger Ailes, whose media relations chief would push “negative articles on certain Ailes accusers, like the one you are looking at now.”
Was this a moment of personal revelation – or a canny piece of theater, the host of a failing TV show latching themselves to an emerging media narrative? Can’t it be both? Kelly welcomed a former Fox News colleague Juliet Huddy, who had filed her own harassment claims against O’Reilly. This is a rich vein to mine, and Kelly pushed deeper into this narrative. On Wednesday, she spoke to a pair of women accusing deposed mogul Harvey Weinstein of assault. (Weinstein has previously denied all claims of non-consensual sex.) One of the women showed up with Gloria Allred, and there was Allred again on Thursday, speaking more broadly as an expert in matters like this, and even offering a tantalizing preview of coming events. “There is a whole list of high profile men, who are not yet accused publicly,” promised Allred, “And some of these names will be accused in the future.” Was she auditioning for a weekly segment? What a pair they’d be, Kelly and Allred, attack dogs for justice! It can’t be worse than Sleepstealers!
Has Kelly found the cause that energizes her? While, coincidentally, finding a cause that crosses recognizable partisan lines? (“Can vague feminism forgive vague racism?” will be a fun question to ask at Thanksgiving this year.) Surely, Kelly was a more invigorated presence during those segments. You wonder if NBC will give her the real estate to transform. Meyers never looked comfortable standing up, so they let him sit down. Would Megyn Kelly Today get better with a desk, without the studio audience?
But would Kelly want that? She came into that Meyers interview riding high as she ever has in her brief tenure in the NBC morning, but she didn’t sound thrilled about talking politics. “I don’t want to talk about it all the time, like I did on cable,” she explained, “Because it’s soul killing.”
Fun fact: If you google “Megyn Kelly Ignored Email,” you might find the story about Fox News shunning her, or you might find a video from The Kelly File that aired precisely two years ago this week. It is vintage Megyn Kelly, the way Kill ‘Em All is vintage Metallica from back when everyone was still drinking. She accuses the media of ignoring a “BOMBSHELL” Hillary Clinton email, rails against all other journalistic institutions, promotes the Fox News investigative team uber alles, makes jokes about her new haircut. She’s “delivering” the news the way fighter jets deliver heatseekers. There were signs of that Kelly this week. Can she rediscover that passion? Is it even possible to be that person in this context? On Friday, Kelly kept the sexual harassment conversation going – with special guest Kevin O’Leary from NBC’s Shark Tank. To quote Megyn Kelly: Boring! C-