The former Fox News host’s brand expands with the streaming show Embeds.
“Hurry up with my damn ménage,” ‘Ye sang less than four years ago and I guess the kids took off with it, huh? At the very least that’s how Embeds takes off, with Noah (Taylor Zakhar) waking up in bed between two women and, following the Goldilocks rule, one is a little too old and one is a teenager. And by teenager, I mean Claire (Alexis G. Zall), daughter of a candidate for president of these United States (Don Tieri) who is being tailed by Noah and his plucky crew of embedded journalists. But he isn’t polling very well, and even his name, John Dobson, sounds like Chris Dobbs and Jon Huntsman crushed together, two of recent presidential politics’ ultimate losers. Millennials watching with a keen eye will observe things like the Lifestyle-brand condoms, which I remembered sitting in a tin at my college’s heath center. If they don’t catch that, then maybe they’ll know who this Bon Iver is; one of Noah’s pals, Quinn (Max Ehrich) accuses the unassuming folk sensation of penning “like, the most revolutionary song I’ve heard in my entire life.”
But none of these names will probably mean anything to you: none of them are especially talented. But one name attached to Embeds is: Megyn Kelly, former host of Fox News’ The Kelly File and about to star in an, as-yet, untitled NBC News-produced daytime show. Embeds was among the furious number of projects she took on as her profile exploded last year, and she is credited as an executive producer. Per Variety, Kelly “instantly clicked over [politics]” with the show’s creator, Scott Conroy. It is difficult, then, not to view Embeds as a sort of subtle statement of Kelly’s elusive worldview, one that Jia Tolentino recently wrote is “firmly invested in presenting [itself] as apolitical.” If the show, perhaps, manages to escape any outright political affiliation, then it contains, in its stead, an opinion on the equally divisive subject of political journalism that she endorses. Political journalism, after all, happens to be what Kelly became known for.
But unlike Kelly’s very high-profile move to NBC, one that involves death threats and teams of bodyguards, “Embeds” is a pretty low-key operation. All six episodes of the show’s first season debuted yesterday on the Verizon-owned streaming platform Go90, an otherwise limpid ad-supported platform whose biggest engagement, so far, was a reality show called The Runner that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon produced and, Variety writes, “was met with a feeble response on social media.” Embeds is, simply put, a passion project ‐ namely that of Mr. Conroy, who left a decent enough gig at VICE’s show on HBO to pursue it. Much as investigative journalists tend to believe they are incredibly valuable to the continuation of democracy, Conroy, himself, worked as an embedded reporter in 2008 for CBS, covering Mitt Romney’s failed first presidential campaign and, later, Sarah Palin’s similar experience. A very profound experience, probably; Conroy later cowrote a book about Palin with his former Fox News double on the campaign, Shushannah Walshe, that The New Yorker’s Sam Tanenhaus called “balanced and well-reported, if not especially searching.”
At least one of those things might be true of Embeds: the show leans toward the likes of HBO’s Veep in its snarky apathy toward the actual meat of political discourse. At one point, in the midst of a saucy hookup, the random breaks apart from one of the journalists, T.J. (Andre Kinney), to criticize his uncritical coverage of Dobson, who is a Republican, and is offended that T.J., who is both black and gay, could ethically do such a thing. “Can we, just, go back to making out?” T.J. eventually responds. Like the latest season of Veep, curiously absent from the show is any menacing Trump-like figure: Dobson is little more than a caricature of the ten or twenty white men in suits who run for president every year and fizz out in the bottom ten percent of the polls. He says things like “I hear you have the best breakfast pizza of any gas station in Iowa,” which sounds like a joke that a former campaign journalist might make at a party. We hear almost nothing of Dobson’s opponents, which is weird because most of the gang assume his campaign is on the verge of ending.
But much like another fair and balanced news network you might be aware of, Embeds is full of opinions. Conroy’s scripts, co-written with Pete Hamby, never let us forget that these millennials are just out of college and, therefore, not adults. Hamby, who smartly decided to keep his day job as “Head of News” at Snapchat is who, I assume, keeps the lingo hip. The word “lit,” for instance, is used at least three times in one episode. Conroy’s twenty-somethings party hardy and are shown drinking copiously and gregariously in every episode I have seen for this review. Aside from their campaign duties, they are given various flatly-sketched out nemeses, and pranks are often pulled. The Office’s Jim and Dwight are the model, of course, and Veep was brilliant in bringing those shenanigans to the White House. But while much comic mileage was made out of everyone besides Anna Chlumsky’s Amy Brookheimer or Jenna Fischer’s Pam Beesly behaving like children, neither Veep nor The Office seemed to be making the argument that they could be reduced to that. A cranky Walter Cronkite figure, kept in the show’s background for lazy old people gags, suggests that no one born after the fall of the Berlin Wall should be covering the campaign of a possible President, and the show seems to more than agree.
Megyn Kelly, those who haven’t yet picked up their pricey hardcover of Settle For More might not know, did not start of as a journalist. In one of the anecdotes Tolentino relays from the book, Kelly tells of the decade-plus she spent in the legal world, becoming the first female associate at a Chicago law firm. Kelly acquiesces, without complaint, to a rule demanding she wear a skirt for the company’s top partners, but complains when asked to do secretarial work. Tolentino notes how Kelly uses stories to narrativize herself as rejecting female stereotypes only by selectively refusing to perform certain ones, such as “learn[ing] how not to seem overeager or needy.” It is only after she becomes an “expert in making [men] lose their cool,” that she takes a position at an ABC affiliate in D.C. and the Kelly we all know begins to appear on television for the first time.
I think Kelly’s narrative, as someone outside the world of journalism who enters it embattled from the legal business world, is important because Embeds is a show that is ultimately very critical of those who have not put the requisite hours in or do not represent the square values of that world. One of the show’s more absurd runners, for instance, involves the nefarious teenager, Claire, who does things like complain about mansplaining, which must just be a ridiculous things kids do these days, right? Most of her time on the show is spent threatening to expose details of the show’s beginning threesome, which we don’t want to happen because Noah, who used to be “King of NYU” and quotes Hunter S. Thompson all the goddamn time, knows the responsible way to deal with personal misdeeds: shutting the fuck up, as him and his peers urge her to do. What are Claire’s motivations for doing something evil like talking openly about her sex life? “I am going to make all of us famous,” she vulgarly promises, desiring to close the gap between visitors on her blog and her Twitter. That’s not what real journalism is about, I guess.
Another anecdote, one that speaks somewhat to the narrative surrounding Kelly, involves Marissa (Kelsey Asbille), who is hit on by an older news executive who tells her (my bad, tweets at her) to meet him in his hotel room, promising to make it worth her while. Marissa’s response is to instantly share the exchange with her Twitter followers, shaming the creep. While her friends applaud her (one says “Yas Queen” very awkwardly), Syd (Chloe Brooks), a slightly older and more experienced journalist, shakes her head. I wondered which side Kelly ‐ who would eventually come to accuse her former boss, Roger Ailes, of the same thing ‐ would have been on. Would she be taking a stab at Yas Queen, also?
It helps that Brooks was one of the few people in “Embeds” who delivered a mildly convincing performance; Conroy’s gang of journalistic heroes mostly stumble through their millennial jargon with awkward or forgettable winks and nudges. The only other interesting performance I noticed was a character named Steve (Michael Blake Kruse), who appears once and wrestles an intoxicated Noah to the ground in a style vaguely similar to the mannerisms of Amy Sedaris’ Jerri Blank, from a somewhat forgotten Comedy Central show called Strangers With Candy.
But the show is probably not about them or even about the importance of embedded journalists diving deep into a presidential campaign that feels like an idle fantasy compared to the one we just witnessed. Kelly, for her part, doesn’t share the nostalgic fondness for youth and sex that the show chooses to fashionably decorate itself with. “I was never an embed nor ever in a threesome,” Kelly curtly told The New York Times when they asked. Her interests, as I see them, are more vaguely attached to the systems that journalists and, viciously, the rest of us live inside, the everyday channels of pure information that everything ‐ from social media platforms to hacking websites ‐ must abide by in order to fit inside something like Ms. Kelly’s broadcast, whatever channel it may appear on. The sheer tameness of Embeds ensures us that everything is okay, that the world is a blur of blotchy presidential candidates who the voters will make the right decision about when the time comes. Except that when I turn away from my hip streaming platform, you know, it isn’t.