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TV review

Megyn Kelly sets up a rogue Fox News state at NBC. First victim: Jane Fonda

The Daily Beast

January 24, 2018

It isn’t that far from Fox News to NBC News—geographically, at least. The two kingdoms stand separated just by a hop and skip across the Avenue of the Americas in Midtown Manhattan: Fox News on the west side of 47th and 48th streets, and on the east side there is Rockefeller Center, land of the Peacock.

It may as well be an ocean. Culturally and tonally the two could not be more divergent, which made Megyn Kelly’s vitriolic, spiteful, and vengeful attack against Jane Fonda on her NBC show on Monday a blast from a familiar past.

In her attack on Fonda, resulting from their uncomfortable on-screen encounter a few months back when Fonda declined to discuss her plastic surgery, the old Megyn Kelly, the Fox News Megyn Kelly, was suddenly back. The problem is, she sounds nothing like the rest of the Today show, and what the hell does NBC do about that?

Does it let Kelly carry on, operating as a rogue mean-girl state, or does it try to get her back to the new, warm, happy Kelly she sold us at the beginning of her time at NBC?

On Monday, taking vicious aim at Fonda, Kelly was spitting venom within the confines of a network and franchise that prizes “family” and smiles and easy laughter about viral videos (at 8:10 a.m.), exercise routines and easy casseroles above settling acrimonious scores.

On screen, at least. The Ann Curry dismissal, the Matt Lauer scandal, rumors of anchors at odds: All are fascinating because they are at such a variant to the images of amity on screen. But to viewers, every day, whatever is going on backstage is kept there. And hosts definitely do not turn on guests.

On Monday, Kelly said Fonda’s plastic surgery was “hard to ignore” and that the actress had discussed her surgery “pretty much everywhere” before coming on Megyn Kelly Today.

Kelly’s complaint, which was frankly embarrassing for a journalist to whine about publicly, was, stripped of its snarling: “Jane Fonda told all those folks about it. Why didn’t she tell me?”

Clearly, what she perceives as her own public humiliation, first on live TV at Fonda’s hands and now many weeks later with people still talking about it, rankles Kelly.

She said Fonda has talked about the kerfuffle in subsequent interviews. To be clear: Fonda has talked in the sparest terms about the incident, when asked. She hasn’t gone out of her way to do it. Every time she does, it looks like she has smelled skunk piss.

Last week, she joked about it on Today, in response to something her Grace and Frankie co-star Lily Tomlin said.

It is not, as Kelly maintained, Jane Fonda who has been unable to forget what Megyn Kelly said to her, it is Megyn Kelly, and so on Monday Kelly decided to attack her.

Kelly disingenuously dressed up Fonda’s brisk dismissal of her as Fonda having rejected Kelly’s oh-so-generous invitation to “empower other women.”

Please. Kelly wanted Fonda to dish on her plastic surgery to generate her own headlines, which—as Kelly might say—is “just fine too.”

The viciousness really kicked in when Kelly trashed Fonda’s activities in Vietnam in the 1970s.

A peeved journalist who didn’t get the scoop about an actress’ plastic surgery decided to attack the same actress for a controversy that is over 45 years old. It was hardly like for like, and Kelly’s attack seemed strange, overwrought and bizarrely nasty. The timing couldn’t have been worse, coming so soon after reports of backstage bullying and upset revealed by a former show writer last week.

It seems so long ago that Kelly was promising, on the first edition of Megyn Kelly Today last September, that she was “done with politics.”

“You know why,” she said to the audience. You know, she meant: all the Donald Trump stuff, the feud that took her beyond the bounds of Fox News anchor fame into another celebrity and wage-earning realm of cultural significance.

The Fox News Megyn Kelly, who had derided the idea of a black Santa, who had spoken, in racially charged terms, about the New Black Panthers, who had, as my colleague Asawin Suebsaeng catalogued, indulged in Muslim-baiting, and many other grubby dog-whistle controversy-generating moments—was now changed.

“It’s gotten so dark,” Megyn Kelly bemoaned of the current cultural climate in that first Megyn Kelly Today episode. Who was she to judge if you had a drink at night to chat about that day’s events that she would chew over, folksy-like, on the show.

Who was Megyn Kelly to judge?

“It’s inappropriate,” the all-new, non-judgey, NBC-smiling, and warm Megyn Kelly said.

With her new show, she assured us, you would “laugh and smile,” maybe cry a bit, and maybe there would be “a little hope.”

There would also be, she announced in that strange staccato way of hers, making the softest of words sound like the harshest command, “some fun.”

“For years I had dreamed of hosting a more uplifting show,” she told us.

Just imagine, she seemed to be saying: she was actually trapped at 1221 Avenue of the Americas, all those years of race-, liberal- and all other kinds of baiting not being her. She was simply the victim of the noxious Fox News ideological chemicals in the air.

Now, she told NBC viewers, she was settling for more time with her family—who had not been central to her Fox show at all—and “more joy in life.”

Megyn Kelly Today’s mission would be “to deliver hope and optimism and inspiration and empowerment…” And then that harsh command again: “And to have fun!”

That didn’t work out so well. Viewers watching the show since have watched a wild and transfixing daily ride of tabloid horrors and decorating tips, with the truly bizarre “Megyn’s Month of Merry” in December, which saw her giving pretty lame Christmas gifts away, with an in-studio train and elf.

At 8:30 a.m. every morning, when she appears with the rest of the Today crew to flag up what’s coming at 9 a.m. out on the plaza, her cries of “Megyn’s Month of Merry!” became their own joke.

But then her announcements of in-depth interviews with sex trafficking victims, or Matt Lauer sexual harassment accusers, sound wildly off-brand too. Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb beam as toothily as they can, and hand desperately over to Al Roker to do the weather.

As I have written before, the #MeToo scandals flowing from Harvey Weinstein have given Kelly the focus her show needed. She enjoys this zone, she enjoys the scoop, she enjoys the crusade, she likes goodies and baddies.

But this vituperative arena isn’t the focus she sold for her show. It isn’t the focus that NBC imagined for the show. The kinder, gentler Megyn Kelly has been substituted for the headline-hungry scandal hunter. She does not seem part of the “Today show family,” as Guthrie calls it. When they all go to the Winter Olympics, she will stay in New York, serving up more dark tales of dysfunction and excellent home office decoration tips.

Today’s 9 a.m. hour under Kelly is now a true television curio: After whatever sexual abuse or trauma tale has been related at the top of the hour recedes, it’s like Frankenstein’s monster receives a bolt of electricity, and the rest of the show features heartwarming stories of personal redemption or success against the odds, travel tips, and food segments (which, Kelly, gratifyingly does not even pretend to care about).

Her attack on Jane Fonda was absolutely the Megyn Kelly her Fox viewers knew. But it may not be the Megyn Kelly her NBC viewers, and bosses, will care to know. She was roundly criticized on The View and The Talk; Twitter seems to think she acquitted herself badly.

The thing is, without the vicious attack, Megyn Kelly could have quite reasonably told viewers that she was just doing her job that morning. She’s a TV show host, she wants the scoop, she wants the tabloids to pick it up and give the show some publicity. Her guest had had plastic surgery. She wanted to ask about it. That’s OK. The problem began with an inelegant approach to the question—perhaps born of first week nerves. Second problem: The guest didn’t take the bait. Then Kelly’s critics leapt on it.

Result: humiliation. Secondary result all these weeks later: Kelly’s misconceived revenge from the ashes of that humiliation.

Celebrities and their agents will likely give Kelly a wide berth. What does NBC think of this mean outlier, this island of nasty, breaking up the 7 to 11 a.m. ocean of bonhomie? Incidents like the Fonda attack may bring headlines, but it will unlikely bring the viewers Kelly needs at 9 a.m.

“You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing,” Kelly said in that first edition of Megyn Kelly Today, quoting John Denver’s song, “Today.”

For sure, and it turns out that for Megyn Kelly, they are some very old songs.