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Megyn Kelly Doesn’t Want to Be Political

The former Fox News star returns to the small screen with NBC’s ‘Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly’ and attempts to forge a new identity: the post-partisan host

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Megyn Kelly would like you to know about the elephants. Their population is dwindling. Their territory is threatened. And Kelly, who has frequently objected to the term “feminism” over the course of her career, particularly when applied to her, would like you to know that women are leading the charge to save them in Kenya.

If this doesn’t sound quite like the longtime Fox News anchor you’ve come to know, either through years of viewership or through Daily Show– and Colbert Report–induced eye rolls, that’s precisely the point. This weekend marked the debut of Kelly’s new program with NBC, Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly. It’s her first venture with the network — a weekday morning show will launch in September — as well as the premiere of a new identity: Kelly as post-partisan host, one willing to devote an entire third of her inaugural program to the plight of Kenyan pachyderms.

Kelly’s departure from Fox News, where she worked from 2004 until January, was fractious, to say the least. She had in recent years become one of the network’s most recognizable faces; until last year, The Kelly File routinely ranked second in Fox News programs in ratings, behind only The O’Reilly Factor. Her announcement that she would leave the network for NBC came as a shock, particularly given that Fox News had reportedly offered her more than $20 million annually to stay, but reflected the culmination of a slow and public divorce from some of the more extreme positions and, especially, members of the right. In the meantime, she did much to endear herself to audiences beyond Fox’s target demographic, sparring on air with Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, and O’Reilly alike.

Her memoir, Settle for More, published in November, further deepened that schism. One passage seemed to suggest that Kelly believed a chauffeur may have laced her coffee with something that made her violently ill on the morning of the first Republican presidential primary debate in August 2015, which she moderated — the text hinting that the incident could possibly be traced back to Donald Trump, who had contacted Fox executives to complain about her first question, which had apparently been leaked to him. Kelly later walked back both parts of this claim, tweeting that she believed she merely had a stomach bug and that Trump was not shown her questions ahead of time. If she believes that, though, the anecdote’s inclusion in her book is decidedly strange. Settle for More also included an account of unwanted sexual advances by former Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who was forced out of the network in July after numerous women, including former Fox commentator Gretchen Carlson, came forward with similar complaints. Kelly describes Carlson going public as an awakening for her: Kelly was asked to defend Ailes and says she declined, devoting herself to pursuing accounts of Trump’s own interactions with women as his campaign continued, placing her increasingly at odds with Ailes. The day after that 2015 debate, Trump told CNN host Don Lemon that Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.”

The question now isn’t so much whether Kelly has the journalistic chops to walk the line of a high-profile, apolitical anchor. It’s whether Sunday Night is the right vehicle for the project. The debut show was divided into three parts, opening with her at least nominally newsy interview of Vladimir Putin. Sitting down with the Russian president was a big get for Kelly and Sunday Night, but also one that neither yielded much in the way of news nor ever had a real shot at doing so. As Kelly pressed Putin on allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, he dodged again and again. Perhaps Kelly’s producers thought that Putin’s seeming acknowledgment last week, following months of outright denial, that “patriotic” Russians might have decided to hack U.S. agencies meant he would be more malleable. Instead, Kelly was alternately stonewalled and mocked. At one point, Putin went so far as to cite the conspiracy theory that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the U.S. intelligence forces as proof that Americans are capable of covering things up. “You people are so creative over there,” he said of suspicions of Russian intervention, which domestic intelligence agencies have overwhelmingly concluded occurred. “Good job. Your lives must be so boring.”

But while “Putin criticizes U.S. foreign policy and obliquely antagonizes Americans” is not exactly breaking news, the interview succeeded insofar as it generated buzz for Sunday Night, garnering coverage everywhere from The Washington Post to Breitbart to, yes, Fox News. There was less online discussion about Kelly’s subsequent two segments, led by correspondents Cynthia McFadden and Harry Smith, respectively: an interview of an occasionally teary-eyed whistleblower from pharmaceutical company Insys that doubled as a missive on the dangers of opioid addiction, and the aforementioned elephant portion, in which a colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve spoke of her great love for the animals.

The success of Sunday Night will depend on prospective viewers’ reception to those latter segments just as much as the former. More than that, it will depend on the willingness of NBC’s audience to accept Kelly’s rebranding as someone in the center at all. Last week, an op-ed in The Hill drew derisive chuckles on social media, especially from those on the left, after referring to the anchor as “the new gold standard in American journalism.” Sunday Night was interspersed with short missives from Kelly, including a lighthearted segment in which clips of pundits yelling at each other and Sean Spicer scolding reporters were spliced in with video of children discussing prompts like whether it was ever acceptable to interrupt someone. “Coming up: What’s with all the arguing?” Kelly asked, and it was charming, if a bit silly. But the recasting of an anchor who once insisted that Santa Claus was white and did as much as any active anchor to intensify the partisan divide in cable news as a neutral advocate of harmonious discourse is a tough pill to swallow all the same.

Next week, Kelly will interview Erin Andrews; promotional footage shows Kelly laughingly mixing up the acronyms “NHL” and “NFL” and asking Andrews about her cancer diagnosis and stalking case. But whether the anchor will be able to balance her show’s newsiness and entertainment elements at the same time as she tries to convince us that her partisan history should now be taken as evidence of her post-partisan present remains to be seen. The first episode of Sunday Night suggests Kelly at least won’t shy away from potential controversy. The elephant — symbol both of the Republican party and of long memories — was an interesting programming choice for someone looking to distance herself from both.