Today marks the end of professional talker Elisabeth Hasselbeck's first glorious week as the new lady host on Fox News's morning talking points briefing Fox & Friends, a show that awkwardly blends the lightheartedness of other morning shows with the dark partisan overtones of the rest of its network. Hasselbeck, long the lone outspoken conservative on the soft-focus daytime gabfest The View, is now safely in allied territory. She's agreed with, she is the majority opinion. So how is she faring in that kind of environment? It's a mixed bag.
I hate to say I told you so, but the first thing I noticed while watching Fox & Friends this whole week (I'm writing this from beyond the grave) is how subdued Hasselbeck seems. As predicted, without a threat of potential conflict tingling in the air, as was the case when she was with Barbara, Joy, and the gang, Hasselbeck's potency has been sapped. She's chipper enough and is certainly a smooth pro at canned segues and teleprompter reading, but throughout much of this week she seemed almost downbeat. I'm sure it's partly to do with nerves, entering territory that her co-hosts
Goofus and Goofuser Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade have been occupying for some time. But there was something else, something deeper, marring her performance that I occasionally detected over the week. Frankly, she didn't seem all that happy to be there.
Her first day came with all the expected fanfare, the big introductions and whatnot. Donald Trump stopped by to say hello. Other "celebrity" friends videoed and tweeted in to wish her luck and give her advice. (That segment continued all week.) All stuff to drum up excitement for the big new arrival. But from the minute that Elisabeth first popped up, handing coffee cups to Brian and Steve (hm), I got the sense that maybe, just maybe, her heart wasn't really in it. That's probably me reading into things too much, but despite all the hoopla for her arrival, there was something almost anonymous about Hasselbeck's presence. Here was a perky blonde replacing the other perky blonde (you're missed, Gretchen) and that was about it. Hasselbeck the media personality may need folks as big as Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg (and Rosie O'Donnell, of course) to define her. Without them, she seemed a bit weightless, and she seemed to know that, at least in some small way.
As the week progressed, Hasselbeck settled into the role more, seeming less nervous, and flowing with the beats of the three-hour show a little more loosely. But her chemistry with Doocy and Kilmeade isn't great — they're out of synch, their jokey banter lurching uncomfortably in fits and starts. I'm not sure this is entirely Hasselbeck's fault, though. Doocy and Kilmeade have been at this job long enough, unquestioned in all their buffoonish college buddy yuk-yukking, that this sudden infusion of, let's be frank, a way more famous person seems to have thrown them off. They're like two brothers stumbling all over themselves and each other when a family friend brings a pretty daughter over for Thanksgiving. But there's also an air of antagonism, Kilmeade especially tending to drive the conversation in a way that demands that Hasselbeck defer to him. That was pretty easy to do with Gretchen, unless she was playing her occasional cutesy scolding mom/sister/school marm role, but with Elisabeth, who's taken on much bigger foes than these chowderheads, it's proving more difficult.
Not that Hasselbeck is giving them all that much of a fight. Really, this show isn't designed that way. It might seem, from excerpted clips, easy for mocking in all their audacious lunacy and/or idiocy, that Fox & Friends is a constant riot of prickly moments and cartoonish scaremongering. And while there certainly is plenty of that — the big focus this week was on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare, for the purposes of this show) and how it's basically going to ruin your life — most of the show is just a rundown of big headlines, then news of the weird type stuff, and then the usual, relatively tame Fox one-offs about the crumbling moral fiber of America (e.g. a woman is upset that a school assignment for her nine-year-old involved the word "pimp." Oddly, I kind of agreed with her). Hasselbeck rides these rhythms well, and to the show's credit they have already let her handle some heavy lifting. (Heavy as this show gets, anyway.) She interviewed a military panel about new Benghazi hearings today (at the end of the segment, the young man closest toward her leaned in and said, referring to a later segment they'd be doing together, "We're gonna go at it!" Everyone laughed uncomfortably). And earlier in the week did satellite interviews about the Navy Yard shooting. During that segment her face did a few too many fake-looking "this is so sad" contortions, but for the most part she's perfectly competent and pleasant at doing this sorta-newsy stuff.
Though I still can't shake the feeling that something is wrong. Hasselbeck seemed muted all week, any political barbs she offered up, which usually played so pointedly on The View, were weary and perfunctory. And the show itself was missing the old daffy energy it had when Carlson was on the couch. Really, I think that Hasselbeck is too big of a star for this decidedly cobbled together show. She's used to better material than the curiously formed, at times completely senseless stuff that the venerable duo of Doocy and Kilmeade throw at her. She's interviewed the president, for god's sake! I think the look of hesitancy I noticed in Hasselbeck's eyes early in the week, one that wasn't really gone by this morning, was the cold and quick-dawning realization that she's in the wrong job.
Some of us have been unlucky enough to know that feeling — the horrible realization, from the first day, that you've made a terrible mistake — and recognizing that, or thinking I recognized it anyway, made me feel bad for her. For Elisabeth Hasselbeck! What a strange sensation that is. Not stranger than watching a week of Fox & Friends — my brain needs a good alcohol scrubbing this weekend — but certainly peculiar. Elisabeth Hasselbeck deserves better than this, and so does Fox & Friends.