Original photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Megyn Kelly's Horrible Show Is Perversely Gratifying to Watch

The tone-deaf gaffes and unrelenting chaos on 'Megyn Kelly Today,' coupled with the host's history of racist, anti-women rhetoric, will likely secure the show's destiny as a camp classic.

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Oct 3 2017, 5:48pm

Original photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Megyn Kelly's new NBC morning show is awful. Everyone, including her own colleagues at the network, knew it would be, but the first week of Megyn Kelly Today exceeded all expectations. New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik observed that the early episodes "most closely resembled a familiar political ritual: an awkward rebranding campaign by handlers trying to humanize their candidate." Doreen St. Félix at The New Yorker concluded that "the network has misread not only Kelly's talents but also the changing nature of our cultural wars." Vulture simply published a list of "Everything That Went Wrong on Megyn Kelly's First Week on Today"—a veritable advent calendar of tone-deaf utterances and egregious fuck-ups.

But all that chaos, coupled with a host whose on-air history is horrible enough to earn her a lifetime of public humiliation, makes Megyn Kelly Today perversely enjoyable to watch. NBC's funniest premiere-week moment wasn't Kate McKinnon's impish Jeff Sessions smooching Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump on SNL or one of too many warmed-over gay jokes from the Will & Grace revival. It was Megyn Kelly interrupting a fluffy conversation with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford about their new movie Our Souls at Night to ask why Fonda has said she's ashamed to have gotten plastic surgery. "We really wanna talk about that now?" the incredulous actress, activist, and two-time Academy Award winner replied. Even if you didn't catch the episode, you've probably seen the withering glare Fonda shot Kelly, which instantly became a meme.

Kelly ended her first week with a poorly executed joke about the negative reviews: "I've just been so delighted at the media response, which is really—no. But the viewer response has been awesome!" She neglected to mention that the show's ratings are also in free fall, or that some of its harshest critics have been the guests. Fonda called the plastic surgery question "a weird thing to bring up" in a subsequent interview, and Debra Messing apologized to a fan on Instagram who was annoyed to see the Will & Grace cast member on the inaugural episode. "I didn't know it was MK until that morning," she wrote. "The itinerary just said Today Show appearance. Regret going on. Dismayed by her comments." During Messing's interview, Kelly brought a fan onstage to meet his idols and asked him whether it was true that the original series was responsible for making him gay. She was joking, but considering her sexist, race-baiting Fox News past, you can't blame some viewers for assuming she really was that ignorant.

It isn't funny that her comments hurt some people, but it is fucking hilarious that Megyn Kelly Today requires its host—a woman famous for dispassionately reducing polished public figures across the political spectrum to quivering lumps of equivocation—to empathize and emote. While I don't doubt that Kelly possesses the full range of human feelings, as St. Félix pointed out, what she's actually good at is tamping down those compassionate instincts in order to expose politicians and pundits as the bloviating opportunists they almost always turn out to be. In light of that history, her over-the-top performance as a bland, sweet wife and mother isn't simply bad—it's campy.

Definitions of camp vary from the classic and elaborate to the impenetrably academic. To sum up decades' worth of theory in a sentence, it's likely that if what you're watching is meant to be earnest and affecting, but is funny instead, it qualifies as camp. In most famous examples of the aesthetic, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest, we don't empathize with the fictional characters' outsized woes—we laugh at them because they're so ridiculous. Since she's a talk-show host, not the heroine of a melodrama, it's the disconnect between the words coming out of Kelly's mouth and what she's actually expressing that make her show campy. On Friday, she prefaced a segment called "Try This Today" with the pseudo-inspirational explanation, "The goal is to open ourselves up to new experiences." She was talking about trying on high-waisted pants.

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Kelly has received the most derisive coverage for her interview gaffes (along with an incident where a cameraman said "shit" on the air after walking into a shot). Although she hasn't shouted anyone down so far, the way she used to on Fox's combative Kelly File, she does put the smack down when a guest isn't following directions. "Stay there, Sister Donna!" Kelly commanded when the nun she was interviewing in the series premiere moved in the wrong direction. You'd think she would've taken advantage of a chat with Lyle Menendez as a rare opportunity to do a serious story, after being banished to the pink-collar morning space following the failure of her newsmagazine series, Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly. Instead, in a phone conversation meted out to viewers over multiple episodes, we watched Kelly sit stiffly at a desk, receiver to her ear, and ask such bizarre, voyeuristic questions as, "When the murders took place, Lyle, was there a moment when you had eye contact with your parents?" On Tuesday, Tom Brokaw joined Kelly for a discussion of the Las Vegas shootings. When the venerable newsman began to issue a mild plea for gun control, she started shouting over him and cut to a commercial.

The show is at its most darkly humorous when she's on her own, though, introducing taped segments, telling personal stories, and feigning excitement over tidbits of pop-culture news curated to appeal to the nebulous demographic of women ages 25-54. "Let me tell you: tears," she intoned, blank-faced, while setting up a feature on nurses who care for opioid-dependent newborns. Kelly's commentary on Julia Louis-Dreyfus's breast cancer diagnosis sounded like a bad Selina Meyer speech: "It just reminds you of what life is, right? These great joys and these troubles. That's what this thing is. It's rich with all of it." She's just as stiff when name-dropping her mother and husband—both of whom have appeared in the studio audience, in what looked a whole lot like desperate attempts to humanize Kelly.

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There's nothing inherently amusing about a tough female journalist in the male-dominated sphere of political news being reduced to sharing a tandem bike with Al Roker and dissecting paparazzi photos of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But there's certainly some irony worth appreciating in the fact that a woman who succeeded, in part, because of her willingness to disavow feminism and advance anti-woman positions (not to mention stoke racist fury) has fallen prey to sexist expectations about which network news jobs are appropriate for a pretty blonde woman. This is someone who has advised campus sexual assault victims to "toughen up, buttercup," shouted down abortion-rights advocates, and defended anti-choice activists' fake Planned Parenthood sting video. In a sycophantic Vanity Fair profile, she distorted the equal-pay movement beyond recognition with the question, "Why can't there be an acknowledgment that, in some instances, women remove themselves from the workforce for a long time and when they come back of course they're not going to get exactly equal pay?" Add to that the context-free centrist celebration of Kelly after she confronted Trump about his misogyny in a primary debate—which is why an anchor with such openly conservative views ended up on NBC in the first place—and her story becomes a grim ouroboros of postfeminist identity politics.

Kelly's career trajectory is a cautionary tale of the most obvious sort: Be careful what you say about other women, because the prejudices you're advancing might come back to bite you. It's depressing that the easiest way for a woman to earn respect in a male-dominated field is to betray her gender; it's even kind of sad, in a twisted way, that a woman can embrace as many MRA talking points as she wants, and they still won't inoculate her against bipartisan sexism. But since we're talking about a person who is likely going to earn at least $15 million this year no matter how many NBC shows she bungles (and may well be welcomed back to Fox News should NBC decline to renew her contract), Kelly's humiliation isn't tragedy. It's delicious, accidental camp. That's something we rarely see on morning television, which usually trafficks in intentional kitsch, so we might as well cherish Megyn Kelly Today for as long as it lasts.