Megyn Kelly Today Needs to Be Torn Down and Rebuilt

Megyn Kelly on Tuesday’s episode of Megyn Kelly Today. Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBC

The first week of any live television show is always a little shaky. But Megyn Kelly Today, the 9 a.m. hour of the Today show that has been turned into a showcase for the former Fox News host, has been more visibly wobbly than most.

In just the first week, Kelly: incited a mini-controversy by suggesting that a Will & Grace superfan “became” gay because of his love of the show; ticked off Jane Fonda by asking her about plastic surgery; faced underwhelming ratings; and dealt with some blistering reviews. (The first episode “devolved into an intentionally meta hall of mirrors, inviting the audience to admire Kelly as much as Kelly admires Kelly,” said a Washington Post critique.)

Even the people surrounding Megyn Kelly have been falling apart before our eyes and ears; at one point during Thursday morning’s show, a roving camera operator stepped into a shot of soccer player Carli Lloyd, then audibly said, “Shit,” and sighed in exasperation. (All of that’s been edited out of the NBC YouTube clip, except for the exasperated sighs.)

In summary, it’s been kind of a disaster. But on the up side, its disastrousness finally led Kelly to the most authentic and relatable moment she’s achieved thus far: the point in Friday’s hour when she expressed a palpable sense of relief that she had finally gotten to the end of the week. “I made it!” Kelly shouted happily to Hoda Kotb and Scott Wolff, who was in for Kathie Lee Gifford. I could be mistaken, but I got the sense that Kelly would have snatched the glass of Chardonnay right out of Kotb’s hand and started chugging it if she could have.

“I just want to take a moment to thank all of you so much for watching this week,” Kelly added as she signed off. “It’s been very exciting. It has been educational. I’ve just been so delighted at the media response, which has really been — no.” Clearly she’s been reading her own reviews. So, presumably, have the folks at NBC, who have already started retooling pieces of the show. The problem is that this show doesn’t just need a renovation, it needs to be torn down to the foundation and rebuilt.

With that in mind, after sitting through all five hours of Megyn Kelly Today: Week One, I have put together a list of its most pressing issues and how they could potentially be addressed, short of rehiring Tamron Hall, Ann Curry, and Katie Couric and letting them take over. (All three of these women are probably too busy to watch Megyn Kelly Today. But there is part of me that believes that, at some point this week, every one of them flipped it on for a millisecond and said out loud, to no one in particular: “You’ve gotta be shittin’ me.”)

1. Renege on the promise to avoid politics.
This woman became a household name by serving as one of the combative cogs in the Fox News machine. She endeared herself to some left-leaning Americans by refusing to tolerate Donald Trump’s behavior. These are the key reasons she now owns a quarter of the Today show franchise.

So what does she say when she finally steps onto her new platform? “The truth is I am kinda done with politics for now … it’s everywhere, and it’s gotten so dark and I’m just like: over.”

This is the most clueless-white-woman move I think I’ve ever seen, and I wrote an entire book about the movie Clueless. I mean, even ladies who deal with the news by trying to sheet-cake it all away are at least shouting about politics while they shove frosting down their gullets. This decision is not only hypocritical — you can’t ride to fame on politics, then abandon it because it’s too “unpleasant” for your brand — it’s also a terrible misreading of the Zeitgeist and a potentially suicidal career move. Political conversation is attracting viewers to cable news and talk shows right now. People who want to escape it are just going to binge-watch something on Netflix, they’re not going to turn to Megyn Kelly to chill. Even if Kelly didn’t come from the political television world, it wouldn’t make any sense for her to steer clear of Trump talk, especially since she’s supposed to be part of the team at Today, which, yes, gets pretty fluffy-comfy most of the time, but still falls under the NBC News umbrella and tries to act like it belongs there.

It may be uncomfortable for Kelly to pivot back to politics after swearing it off, but she should do it, and do it soon, by transparently telling viewers she’s rethought that decision and realized that what’s happening in our government is too vital to completely ignore.

2. Put Kelly back in the regular Today show studio.
I have no doubt that NBC spent a lot of money building Kelly’s studio and making it look like a cross between a page in a West Elm catalogue and the lobby at a very nice consulting firm. But it was a mistake that disrupts the sense of continuity that used to exist between the different hours of the Today show and also, frankly, puts more pressure on Kelly to be a STAR (all-caps fully intended). It doesn’t serve her well.

In the history of the Today show, to the best of my memory, no one has gotten his or her own hour all to him or herself along with his or her own studio, with his or her own studio audience. Not Bryant Gumbel, not Jane Pauley, not Katie Couric, not Matt Lauer, not even Willard Scott, who probably could have gotten the whole thing paid for by Smuckers. I don’t work for NBC and I don’t watch the Today show every single morning, but even I find it galling that Kelly just glided in on her high heels and had all that handed to her. Simply standing there in that setting anoints her as someone more special than anyone else who’s ever anchored Today, which means that every time she makes even the smallest gaffe, it’s going to be broadcast in neon lights.

Reversing course on this would likely be throwing money away, and also be pretty embarrassing for Kelly. But it would go a long way toward setting more humble expectations for her hour, and making her seem more like part of the Today family than the favorite daughter who gets the shiniest toys from Daddy.

3. Ditch the part of the show where Kelly takes questions from the audience.
In an effort to seem interested in “the people,” Kelly had been taking “spontaneous” questions from her studio audience so she can find out what’s on “your” mind. But organically finding out what’s on your mind just meant pointing to pre-chosen audience members who read extremely preprepared questions that were either about Kelly’s life or seeking to get her non-earth-shattering thoughts on various issues. By midweek, it was clear she had gotten a memo about how self-involved this seemed, because she tried to poll the audience at certain points instead of just rambling on herself. But it didn’t help much. It also didn’t help when one guy stood up to ask his question and referred to her, not once, but twice, as Kelly instead of Megyn.

Hence, on Friday’s show, the segment was scrapped entirely without a word, and Americans went into a tizzy! Just kidding. No one noticed and no one cared. If they are smart, Megyn Kelly Today’s producers will treat the Q&A portion the way Happy Days treated Richie’s older brother Chuck: Leave him out of the show and act like he never existed.

4. Don’t leave Megyn Kelly alone for too long.
Megyn Kelly clearly wants very much to be Oprah. (On Friday’s show, she even casually name-dropped her “friend” Dr. Phil.) But as this week has proven, she is not Oprah. And that’s okay! Really, no one can be Oprah other than Oprah and that’s as it should be.

There’s a reason most people in this particular line of work don’t fly solo: because it’s hard and you have to be Ellen DeGeneres levels of likable to pull it off. Serving as the host of the kind of gentle, stay-at-home-mom-friendly, infotainment program she’s clearly shooting for doesn’t come naturally to Kelly, at least not yet. What would help is putting other people on set with her, something that already started to happen on Thursday, when NBC reporter Jeff Rossen came onboard for a segment on canines that can track digital devices, and again on Friday when correspondent Keir Simmons joined Kelly (for what was, by my count, the third time in a week that Megyn Kelly Today bravely addressed the fact that Prince Harry and girlfriend Meghan Markle held hands in public). Kelly is a little more natural in conversation than she is at talking to the camera and trying to be relatable, especially when she’s telling us how relatable she is.

5. For the love of Will and/or Grace, dial back the NBC self-promotion.
The Today show has always brought on stars of its own shows for synergistic publicity purposes. I get that. But it was particularly overwhelming during this first week of Kelly’s show. Not a day went by without her devoting a sizable chunk of her hour to interviews with cast members from SNL or Will & Grace, or engaging in reporting, like her “revealing” interview with Lyle Menendez, that related to an NBC scripted series (Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders: Tuesdays at 10!). This was especially uncomfortable because Kelly doesn’t seem particularly adept at celebrity interviews. Again, I refer you to Jane Fonda. (I also refer you to the fact that during that same interview, she kept referring to Robert Redford, and I found that just as offensive as the plastic surgery question.)

6. Do more recorded, reported segments.
The two best things Kelly did all week were her pretaped segments on the African-American female police chiefs in North Carolina and the nurses who care for infants born to opioid addicts. These were the kind of feel-good stories that Kelly has said she wants to tackle, about people and issues that deserve attention. They could have been a little newsier and I didn’t think there was any reason to bring the subjects in those stories onto the live set. But both played more to Kelly’s strengths and took the spotlight off of her in order to shine it on other people. More of that is a good idea.

7. Don’t go too deep into the legal stuff.
It seems like NBC may have decided to play to Kelly’s strengths by letting her cover more legal and criminal cases. Exactly how that keeps the show from going too dark, I have no idea, but it does let Kelly put her training as an attorney to good use. Hence, not only did Kelly do that Menendez interview, she also spent nearly half of Friday’s program discussing the O.J. Simpson case.

Since Simpson is due to be released from jail in days, there was at least somewhat of a newsy reason to invite prosecutor Chris Darden and the relatives of murder victim Ron Goldman on the show (although the packaging seemed somewhat hastily put together). I can already hear some producer suggesting that Kelly keep doing this sort of thing. But if she goes too far with it, pretty soon her show will be pure Nancy Grace, mixed with occasional Prince Harry hand-holding news and advice about how to pull off high-waisted pants.

8. Change the name of the show.
I told you that this thing needs to be torn down and rebuilt and I wasn’t kidding. The name is, admittedly, a very small thing given all the other glaring issues that need to be confronted. But it sets a tone and speaks to the biggest problem with this show, which is that it’s more about Megyn Kelly than it is about informing or enlightening viewers.

This alludes to what I wrote earlier about the set, but it’s worth repeating: Megyn Kelly should not come before the Today show. Her voice should be incorporated into it, but Today shouldn’t contort itself to accommodate her. This is one of the reasons, though not the only one, why everything about the first week has seemed so unnatural: because NBC is jamming a square peg into a place where there wasn’t even a round hole in the first place.

During Monday’s show, Kelly turned to morning show veteran Kathie Lee Gifford and asked her what has been the secret to her a.m. hosting success. “Being authentic,” Gifford said as a makeup artist dotted her lids with eyeliner, which may be the most accurate encapsulation of what morning show television is: talking about authenticity while someone slathers enough cosmetics on your face to give you a convincing façade.

Kelly has been doing all the things that the “authentic” host of a morning show aimed primarily at women is told to do: talk about your kids and your husband, mention personal tragedies, acknowledge that you wear Spanx even though we all know you have no idea what it’s really like to bandage-wrap bulges until you can barely breathe. But it’s all ringing false because Megyn Kelly Live has been designed, right down to its name, to convey the notion that Megyn Kelly is a big deal and she comes first.

Call this show what it should have been called in the first place: Today With Megyn Kelly, because Today was in people’s living rooms long before she showed up and is still going to be there whether Kelly stays for the long term or not.

Megyn Kelly Today Needs to Be Torn Down and Rebuilt