While watching the three episodes of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” that have aired so far, I found myself thinking about charisma. It’s a relatively hard quality to define; Merriam-Webster actually resorts to the supernatural in its first definition of the word: “A personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure.”
All I know is that I don’t find Megyn Kelly charismatic. She has no “personal magic.” To me — and charisma, like physical appeal, is a highly subjective matter — she is lacking in that mysterious quality that engenders curiosity, excitement, and trust in a TV viewer. There’s something stubbornly shallow about her presence, so that when she sits down with an international dodge artist like Vladimir Putin, she seems way out of her league.
She did put on a stern face for Putin, looking straight into his cold eyes like a hard-nosed reporter, but she nonetheless came off like a poseur, going through the motions of seriousness. He brushed her and her questions off like they were so much dandruff.
Some of the more awkward moments on “Sunday Night” find Kelly trying to position herself as an investigative troublemaker, the kid who isn’t afraid to ask tough questions. You can feel the strain as she reaches. During her Putin segment, set at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, she said in a voice-over, “The normally wonkish gathering quickly became heated when I asked President Putin about Russia’s attempts to hack the 2016 election.” But there was no heat: Putin dismissed her question with jokes about fingerprints and a smirk that will forever be linked to Beck Bennett of “Saturday Night Live.” Her claim was as flat as her delivery.
So on a very basic level, I think NBC may have goofed when it decided to give her some $15 million a year to host its Sunday “60 Minutes” knock-off as well as a daily 9 a.m. show due in the fall. What might have seemed like a brilliant strategy in the immediate wake of Kelly’s tangle with Donald Trump during the election — that Kelly will draw her Fox News viewers to NBC, that she’ll please others with her more centrist views and Trump resistance — is turning into a giant miscalculation. She did quite well on Fox News, but outside of that cable context, it turns out, she may not have the magnetism and acumen to rise to the occasion of NBC’s big plans for her.
The ratings haven’t been promising so far, to say the least. No one can assert that Kelly’s interview with conspiracy theory nutjob Alex Jones didn’t get enough publicity before it aired last Sunday. The media was briefly obsessed with Kelly’s questionable “get” — that’s the current approach to news, brief obsession — as pundits debated whether Kelly was, as she promised, shining a light on a dangerous man who has influenced the president or merely giving a mainstream boost to the guy who claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings were a hoax. And yet her numbers, which have declined with each episode, were strikingly low regardless of the ruckus, with only 3.5 million viewers tuning in that night (by comparison, “60 Minutes” drew 5.3 million).
I’m glad all the controversy didn’t succeed in attracting viewers, as controversy does so often these days. There was something unappealingly cynical about Kelly’s decision to interview Jones in the first place. It was as if she were answering the question, “How can I please my base, which I formed at Fox News, yet show off my reporting skills to my new NBC audience?” There was little about Jones himself that Kelly wanted to reveal to her audience, it seemed; it was all about his market potential. She might have thought that giving Jones mainstream attention would persuade viewers from the right to tune in, and that questioning him on his Sandy Hook denial would appeal to the rest — but she was very wrong. She only wound up looking two-faced.
Perhaps she’ll learn as she goes along. And, to be fair, we haven’t seen her in the 9 a.m. slot yet — although morning hosts need to radiate a more intimate, less stiff personality than she seems able to muster. In audio Jones leaked in advance of their interview last Sunday, Kelly described her self-image to him over the phone while trying to persuade him to give her an interview: “I would say that I’m a combination of Mike Wallace, Oprah Winfrey, and Larry the Cable Guy.” Grandiose much? Based on what I’ve seen on “Sunday Night,” she shares very little with any member of that famous trio.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.