Critic's Notebook: 'Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly' Spends 60 Minutes Trying to Be '60 Minutes'

Vladimir Putin Megyn Kelly interview - H screengrab 2017
Screengrab/Courtesy of NBC News

The former Fox News star's show debuted with a Putin interview and a familiar mix of hard news, investigative journalism, human interest and fluff.

That Sunday's debut episode of NBC's Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly trumpeted its interview with Vladimir Putin as the main event felt a bit anticlimactic. After all, Vlad has become so chatty lately that he’s in danger of being overexposed. He’s given so many interviews and made so many public appearances in recent weeks that he’s starting to make the Kardashians look bashful. Perhaps that’s why the segment lasted only 10 minutes or so, giving Putin time enough to say nothing at all.

It should be obvious by now that interviewing Putin doesn’t serve any point unless sodium pentothal is involved. The former KGB agent doesn’t exactly let it all hang out. The segment began with Kelly drilling Putin onstage at a St. Petersburg economic forum about Russian hacking during the presidential campaign. “What are you talking about?” he responded in mock consternation.

The ensuing one-on-one interview didn’t produce any revelations. When asked about the incoming Trump administration’s plan to loosen sanctions on his country, Putin put on his best Alfred E. Neuman face and said, “It was a big surprise to me.” He pointed to the U.S. intelligence agencies as being behind the dastardly rumors, adding that they were undoubtedly involved in the JFK assassination as well. But he was polite when claiming that the U.S. routinely interferes in elections around the world.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Putin told Kelly, looking pained about having to bring the matter up.

Asked about the meetings between Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and, well, virtually everyone Donald Trump has ever met, Putin expressed disbelief at the sheer absurdity of the question.

“When I saw this, my jaw dropped,” Putin said, although he obviously meant to say “unhinged.”

Jared Kushner pursuing back-channel talks? “I don’t know about this proposal,” said Putin, who clearly does a lot of delegating.

“There’s nothing to even talk about!” he claimed. “To me, this is just amazing.”

“You people are so creative over there!” Putin added. “Good job! Your lives must be so boring!” At that point, even the translator was struggling not to chuckle.

Shown a photograph of Michael Flynn sitting next to him at a Russian dinner, Vladimir “See No Evil” Putin told Kelly, “You and I personally have a closer relationship than I had with Mr. Flynn.” It sounded innocent enough, until he let out a chuckle befitting a Bond villain. The only thing missing was a white cat in his lap.

Kelly grimly pressed on, displaying the sort of smile a mother gives her child when she knows he’s lying but lacks any proof. “Do you have something damaging on our president?” she asked, no doubt hoping that the answer would involve Russian prostitutes and "golden showers."

“Have you all lost your senses over there?” Putin finally asked in an exasperated tone. Although to be fair, it’s a perfectly reasonable question.

The rest of the 60-minute show felt a lot like, well, CBS' 60 Minutes. It featured various segments carefully designed to provide a balance of investigative pieces, human interest stories and fluff. Cynthia McFadden reported a story about a whistleblower who exposed a drug company’s illegal marketing of an opioid drug that’s supposed to be prescribed only to cancer patients. The former employee of the company, Insys, tearfully described how she pretended to be calling from doctors’ offices while contacting insurance companies about paying for the drug, which costs anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000 a month.

It was an effective segment, featuring an Iraq war veteran whose life was destroyed after becoming addicted to the drug; a medical expert who declared, “I’m running out of words to describe how horrible this is”; the grieving mother of a young woman who died of an overdose; and even a Mike Wallace-style unannounced visit to the office of the company’s founder (surprise, he wasn’t there). The piece reached a powerful emotional crescendo when the whistleblower said, “More people are going to die,” before breaking into sobs and saying, “I am so sorry.”

The next segment, “Into Africa,” was about elephants, and really, need I say more? Is there anything cuter than a baby elephant? A suitably khaki-wearing Harry Smith traveled to Kenya, where he visited an elephant orphanage (Awwww!) and talked to an American woman — a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, no less — who relocated her family to Nairobi so she could fight to save elephants from poachers. The piece, which included interviews with several female Kenyan officials, also had a refreshing feminist slant, making the case that women were “leading the fight.”

Apparently feeling the need to prevent viewers from having any nightmares, the show concluded with a brief segment dubbed “The Kid’s Table.” “Can’t we all just get along?” Kelly asked, treating us to clips of people behaving rudely (Sean Spicer, I’m talking about you) interspersed with scenes of little children interacting in much more mature fashion. Too cute by half, it made repeats of Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darndest Things look cutting-edge by comparison.

Considering how closely it resembles its competition, slotting Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly directly opposite CBS’ venerable show seems a bit strange. Yes, its host boasts strong television journalism skills, has a large fanbase and is appealing. But why not take advantage of the high demand for such quality newsmagazine fare by placing it somewhere where a good chunk of its potential viewership is not already spoken for?