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Review: NBC’s ‘Megyn Kelly Today’ Isn’t Partisan, but It’s Awkward

This has involved a lot of telling rather than showing. She told us how much she loves “Will & Grace” (one of many NBC properties plugged on the show) and how much she hates seeing “perfect” models on magazine covers at the supermarket “just as I’m loading up with a bunch of Ben & Jerry’s.” Before a segment about the babies of drug-addicted mothers, she conveyed the depth of its emotion by saying, “Let me tell you: tears.”

She also promised a politics-free zone, to the point of strangely downplaying the stridently anti-Trump tone of the “Will & Grace” premiere in front of the show’s own cast.

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The idea that TV fans just want an escape from partisan fighting is intuitive, but it’s not necessarily borne out by evidence. Jimmy Kimmel, the mostly apolitical late-night host, just took a rare lead in the ratings after he went on the health care warpath. Viewers may be sick of politics in the Trump era, but that doesn’t mean they’re tired of it.

So two days in a row, studio audience members asked Ms. Kelly what she thought of N.F.L. players kneeling to protest racism during the national anthem. And two days in a row, she gave the same noncommittal answer, almost verbatim: “Those players have every right to take a knee, and those who object to it have every right to say they object.” In conclusion: “Go USA!” (Welcome to 2017, when Miss Texas has a stronger take than a former Fox host.)

Ms. Kelly’s can’t-we-all-get-along stance is pretty rich, considering that she made her name in the trenches of Fox News’s culture war, insisting in a 2013 segment that Jesus and Santa Claus were white. This week, she told a gay “Will & Grace” fan from the audience that “the gay thing’s gonna work out” for him, after which the sitcom’s co-star Debra Messing said she regretted having appeared on the show.

But if we take Ms. Kelly as sincere, this still means the entire argument for her show is that she’s burned out on the politics thing and needs a break. That’s fine for her, and maybe a wise self-care decision. But it does not create an obligation on the audience’s part.

With “Megyn Kelly Today” defined mainly as what it isn’t, what’s left is an odd hybrid of morning escape and nightly newsmagazine. Ms. Kelly seemed more at home in a Friday segment on O. J. Simpson’s impending release from prison than in an interview with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, derailed by her record-scratch of a question to Ms. Fonda about cosmetic surgery.

Ms. Kelly was most animated and passionate on the challenges for women in the work force. She advised young women to work hard and uncomplainingly but added, “You’ve got to know where to draw the line if someone’s behaving inappropriately.” It was hard not to recall that she was one of several women whose complaints of sexual harassment helped oust the Fox News chief executive, Roger Ailes.

She also showed flashes of a dry, deadpan humor. But “Megyn Kelly Today” is following a daytime template of escape, uplift and inspiration in which it doesn’t fit.

This leaves Ms. Kelly talking a lot about “joy,” a word, as my colleague John Koblin noted in a feature about her, she’s particularly fond of. In her opening speech, she vowed to have “more joy in my life”; in an interview with the convicted killer Lyle Menendez (the subject of a new NBC “Law & Order” series) she asked if he has any joy in his.

“Joy” has become one of those self-actualization words that takes everyday emotion — happiness, fun, love — and both elevates and guts it, turning it into an achievement, an accreditation, something you might give a TED Talk about. In that sense, “Megyn Kelly Today” is full of joy. It’s just not enjoyable.

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