Serial hugging, even between people who barely know each other and possibly don’t even like each other, is a time-honored convention of daytime television.
The premiere of Megyn Kelly Today—NBC’s high-dollar bet that the former Fox News star will arouse feelings of love and devotion among a largely female morning-show viewership that isn’t watching the top-rated Live with Kelly and Ryan on ABC—was a veritable orgy of cuddling, squeezing, clinching and grasping as the 46-year-old Kelly determinedly demonstrated how adorably endearing (and, yes, affectingly vulnerable) she can be.
“I’m so excited—so excited! I’m also a little nervous, so please bear with me,” Kelly confided to the delightedly squealing crowd after she strutted into camera-range for extended introductory remarks (see below) before her dogged hugfest.
First Kelly hugged her husband Douglas Brunt, who’d walked tentatively through the live studio audience to present the mother of their three kids with a bouquet of two dozen roses (allegedly a surprise!) and congratulate her on her new $17 million gig.
Then Kelly threw her arms around each of the four stars of Will & Grace, who waited patiently for their hugs, like children in line for Santa, before doing three segments of NBC cross promotion for their freshly revived sitcom.
Were the regular folks in the expensively constructed studio—boasting an industrial-strength kitchen looming behind the wicker coffee table brimming with books and an unlit scented candle—really that shriekingly ecstatic when Kelly announced the old news that Will & Grace, after an 11 year absence, has been already renewed for a second season? Or did electric prods in their seats cause them to scream so loudly? (By the way, note to control room: perhaps next time there could be fewer shots of the orange-jacketed gentleman wind-milling his arms in a desperate attempt to rev up the crowd.)
Then Kelly hugged a Will & Grace superfan named Russell Turner (apparently a gay attorney, just like Will Truman) who—another surprise!—will be flying with a friend to Los Angeles on United Airlines (presumably without being dragged from the plane) in order attend a live taping of his favorite situation comedy.
Then, after a packaged piece in which members of the Today show cast gave Kelly a tour of 30 Rock—and she was shown flipping an omelet with Matt Lauer, dancing outdoors with the fans and Hoda Kotb, schmoozing in hair & makeup with Kathie Lee Gifford, and riding to work with Al Roker in the pre-dawn darkness on the back of a bicycle built for two—she hugged, one after the other, Savannah Guthrie, Gifford, Kotb, Jenna Bush, Sheinelle Jones, Craig Melvin, and Lauer—who brought a service dog on a leash to the occasion, which, unless you were watching Today’s 8 a.m. block, might have been a tad mystifying; there’d been a service-dog segment. (Roker was on jury duty so lamentably missed his hug.)
And then they all toasted with mimosas.
“Now let’s get hammered,” Kelly announced.
It was arguably the most authentic moment (in the taped Today show piece, Gifford advised Kelly that the trick to morning TV is authenticity) in a debut that, understandably, was trying very, very hard to turn the slim blonde Roger Ailes protégé into the kind of next-door-neighbor who would happily lend you a cup of sugar, especially if you’re one of the African American and Latina women who comprise an estimated 25 percent of the morning television audience.
Kelly, in slim black trousers with ruffled white cuffs and a pink pussy-bow blouse, began the show with an apparently scripted speech that was surely designed to render her approachable and accessible, but, weirdly, had the sort of amped-up melodramatic fervor that would not have been out of place during one of Joel Osteen’s or, for that matter, Jimmy Swaggart’s bouts of televangelistic testimony.
“The truth is, I’m kind of done with politics for now,” said Kelly, who spent much of the 2016 presidential campaign as a scapegoat for Donald Trump’s abusive misogyny. “You know why, right?... And it’s just gotten so dark.”
She went on: “If my producers and I do our jobs, you'll find out what you need to know today to get yourself through the day to have a laugh with us, a smile, sometimes a tear and maybe a little hope to start your day. Some fun! That’s what we want to be doing.”
Then Kelly launched into her everywoman personal biography—her childhood in Upstate New York (“We didn’t have a lot of money, but we did have a lot of love and a ton of honesty”) with her college-professor dad and nurse-mother, who listened mutely in the audience but apparently will have a speaking part on Tuesday’s show.
“In the summers, we used to go camping and my dad would play his guitar and would sing John Denver around the campfire. Cue the tears,” Kelly continued. “One of our favorites was Denver’s song ‘Today’—it’s about not wasting a moment. Making each day count. I didn't really understand the message as a kid. But all too soon, I would come to understand. My dad died of a sudden heart attack when I was 15 and he was 45. It happened in our home, ten days before Christmas and it was the single most devastating event of my lifetime.”
Cue the tears.
“As I often had since my dad died,” Kelly went on, “I asked him for a sign of what I should do. But this time, no sign seemed to come. Then last summer, I was finishing up my memoir, called ‘Settle for More.’”—which, by the way, the premiere mercilessly plugged, and which will apparently be the title of a continuing segment about inspiring people (and selling books). Monday the “Settle for More” segment featured a taped piece on 77-year-old Catholic nun Donna Liette, who fights gun violence on the South Side of Chicago.
In the end, a wet-eyed Sister Donna was brought onstage with several mothers of sons who were killed in Chicago shootings, and then representatives of Ace Hardware and Coldwell Banker real estate brokers presented her with checks for $22,000—which seemed a fabulous bargain considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars in favorable PR they were getting on a network program being watched by millions.
Kelly is, of course, a charismatic presence and a talented broadcaster; her appeal to the largely male and conservative-leaning prime-time Fox News audience was undeniable, but it’s not clear how that quality will be received by a viewership composed largely of middle-aged women who are decidedly not Fox’s target demographic.
“The verdict is in—you’re a hit!” Roker joked during a brief video meant to make up for his jury duty absence. “Now I’ve gotta go dispense some justice!”
But when it comes to Megyn Kelly Today, neither the verdict, nor the justice, will be Roker’s to dispense.