TV Review: ‘Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly’

Vladimir Putin Megyn Kelly
Courtesy of NBC News

NBC paid a lot of money to bring Megyn Kelly to 30 Rock, and we’ve yet to see the full array of work that the former Fox News anchor will bring to the Peacock. In September, she’ll unveil a daily 9 a.m. program, but first up was newsmagazine “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.”

Sunday’s debut episode was not a bad hour of TV — only one segment was cringe-inducing — but it was a long way from must-see TV.

One thing that can be said about it is that was better than the Fox newsmagazine-ish special that Kelly unveiled a year ago, at the height of her headline-making conflict with Donald Trump. But that is not a high bar to clear: That Fox special was flat, bland and poorly put-together. Her first “Sunday Night” performance was passable, but not much more than that.

It actually resembled her Fox special a bit, in that the promotion of the hour revolved around a big “get.” This time around it wasn’t Trump, but the other key player in America’s ongoing political drama, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In two different venues — at a panel discussion at an economic forum in St. Petersburg that Kelly moderated, and in a one-on-one interview — Putin batted away her questions like so many troublesome mosquitos.

It’s important that the questions be asked, of course: The queries about Russian involvement in America’s election and Russian influence on Trump and his advisors were necessary to the public record. But they offered no new real insights. The answers to every question — or every version of essentially the same question — was that the allegations of interference and collusion were “nonsense.”

Before becoming Russia’s leader, Putin was in the KGB and headed the FSB, facts that Kelly mentioned during her narration. Given all that, there was simply no chance that she was going to break his icy reserve or get a new answer to these accusations, which Putin and his mouthpieces have denied for a very long time. For all the attempts to make Kelly’s interview of Putin into a dramatic showdown, it was actually very short on dramatics and long on repetition.

The next two pieces were reasonably good, but not really up to the level of “60 Minutes,” which is still the reigning champ in the newsmagazine game.

The piece on a drug manufacturer allegedly pushing doctors (and the company’s employees) to get people on a very dangerous pain medication meant only for those with cancer (despite the fact that these patients did not have cancer) was solid, if a little longer than it needed to be. Correspondent Cynthia McFadden laid out the case clearly, and her interview with a whistleblower gave a complete picture of the cravenness of the company’s scheme. But it also seemed vaguely familiar, given the depressingly high number of similar news stories in the last few years about such ethically bankrupt schemes.

At the very end of the piece, it was noted that the company did a roaring $240 million in sales of the drug in question last year; it would have been nice to know if its sales were headed on an upward or downward trajectory over the past few years. Overall, it was an informative piece, but one that would not have seemed all that out of place on “Dateline” or “NBC Nightly News.”

A subsequent piece on saving elephants in Africa, while beautiful to look at, was also generally short on numbers. All indications from the report pointed to a decline — which is easy to credit (and sad to think about) — but no specific numbers about elephant populations, past or present, were cited. The relatively puffy piece also spent a great deal of time on an American woman who’d gone to Africa to work on elephant conservation, and only a fraction of that time on African women who were doing similar work. This felt incongruous for a few reasons, most notably because the piece concluded that localized efforts rising up from the grass roots of individual communities would be the most effective way to fight poaching.

The final segment was an embarrassment. It was, essentially, a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” type of diversion, one that ignored the realities of how we arrived at this moment in our national political discourse in order to showcase kids being cute while talking about how grown-ups should follow the basic rules of civility.

Well, sure, but riding a wave of divisive rhetoric set loose by Fox News and its various talking heads and anchors is how Megyn Kelly got famous in the first place (not everyone has forgotten her telling viewers that Santa is definitely white and that some of those who work for social justice are pursuing an agenda that revolves around “victimhood”). Airing a piece which came off as the equivalent of patting viewers on the head and talking down to them about how everyone should just be polite is disingenuous, to say the least. The piece also felt wildly out of step with everything else the program was trying to establish, namely a plausible, mainstream journalism persona for Kelly.

The rest of “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” was not at that sophomoric level, and Kelly herself was, as she has always been, poised on camera. But the show will have to go much further in matters of quality, urgency and coherence in order to justify the investment in the anchor. In interviews, Kelly sounds as if she’s been eager to prove herself outside the narrow confines of her former perch. That process still appears to be a work in progress, at best.