It’s been too long since America has had a defining television interlocutor. Sure, as recently as last year, Diane Sawyer scored major ratings with her two-hour special regarding the future of Caitlyn Jenner (then known as Bruce). But the interview landscape—with a growing list of shows on which stars might appear, and the possibility of communicating with fans directly via social media, bypassing TV altogether—feels more diffuse than ever.
Megyn Kelly, Fox News’s resident dynamo, has placed her sights upon Barbara Walters’s throne—specifically, upon her style of TV specials, in which various stars were brought together to make a case for themselves as celebrities, on Oscar night or during the annual “Most Fascinating” special. Kelly’s special, titled Megyn Kelly Presents, aired on broadcast television, a change from her nightly Fox News booking. It was a signpost of her ambition, and a signal that she has the raw skill to carry out whatever may come after Fox News.
Let’s deal first, as Kelly did, with Donald Trump. It seemed likely that Kelly might save the interview with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for the end of her broadcast, but she chose to use it as the lead of her broadcast—albeit not before she went through an introduction that detailed her perceived “feud” with Trump after he criticized her question in a debate in raw, anatomical terms.
In that segment Kelly pushed back substantially against Trump’s claims in a manner news broadcasters have seemed to be unable—asking him, repeatedly, for instance, whether or not tweeting criticisms of Heidi Cruz’s appearance had been a mistake. Asking, and perhaps pushing too hard, on the question of whether someone had ever hurt Trump “emotionally,” she dismissed his first answer, which was that his brother’s drinking habit had hurt him. She asked to move past “the subject of alcoholism, which we’ve discussed” and ended up getting the quote of the political cycle: “When I’m wounded, I go after people hard. And I try to un-wound myself.” It’s the sort of “get” that distinguishes a newsmagazine broadcast from a cable-news show airing five nights a week. Divorced, if only slightly, from the news cycle, Kelly was able to go big and broad.
But the special was haunted by a sense that perhaps she went too big and broad too fast. Four interview subjects in an hour that includes the standard ad-breaks is a lot, even for the most gifted of interviewers. Segments were edited together in a manner that brought to mind a businesslike brusqueness: A segment with Robert Shapiro, a member of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team,” rushed from questions about Shapiro’s experience of the Simpson trial to the untimely death of his son so quickly that this viewer felt disoriented. And the line of questioning to Laverne Cox about her suicide attempt came so early in the interview that most viewers were likely still figuring out who Cox was when the actress said, “I didn’t think you’d be going there!”
To be clear, Kelly’s willingness to book Laverne Cox at all is an act of daring in an era in which trans rights, at least with respect to to public restroom use, have been publicly questioned by some of Kelly’s Fox News colleagues including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. But beyond that, booking four subjects from diverse fields of endeavor was an admirable sign of ambition in an era in which the major networks have largely ceded the biggest of celebrity interviews to Jimmy Fallon, who’d make the star do a lip-sync battle, or to Twitter. But I’d prefer a full hour with Donald Trump—or with Laverne Cox, or with the star of her choosing. Kelly got substantial and interesting information out of each of her stars, but was racing against the clock in a manner that put no participant in his or her best light. If Kelly’s going to be the TV star she seems destined to be, she’ll need to be allowed to take more time.
But there’s hope for a future in which Kelly makes TV newsmagazines, to borrow a phrase, great again. After all, this early special was something of an audition for a future in which she either does more hourlong specials on Fox, or does… Who knows what? (Her contract at Fox News is up in July 2017, according to the Los Angeles Times.) She used her penultimate moments of airtime to reveal the cover of her memoir in which she’ll break her silence about Trump, and the final seconds to show off her unusual rapport with all the stars she’d interviewed. Like all the nerviest and best auditions, this special was self-serving in the extreme, and teetered on the edge of failing. But while Kelly may not have nailed every detail, the raw material—in the form of curiosity and daring—was enough to earn her whatever a callback might mean. Let’s hope that next time, she gets two hours.