Al Roker returned Monday morning to the third hour of the Today show, for which he’d been a cohost for five years—under the title “Today’s Take”—until he was rudely interrupted last year by an interloper from Fox News.
Far from his frequent role as Today’s class clown, he wore a grim expression and a somber three-piece suit—appropriate to a moment when Americans are coping with the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, a maniac’s slaughter of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
On this third hour—which was otherwise untitled but, until last Friday, was known as Megyn Kelly Today—Roker and his cohosts, Craig Melvin and Jenna Bush Hager, sat together on a sofa for two tearful segments featuring a father and his daughter who performed CPR to save his life from a cardiac arrest, along with the emergency dispatcher who talked her through it over the phone, and the deputy sheriff who rushed to help.
“It literally is a perfect story for a day like today,” Al Roker told the guests at the end of the segment. “Thank you for helping us see the good out there.”
It was six days after the career-ending controversy over a blurted defense of Halloween blackface—actually the last straw of a series of unfortunate events involving Kelly’s show—and Roker didn’t utter the words “Megyn” or “Kelly”; neither did his co-hosts.
Kelly is now a non-person at NBC News: she whose name, like Voldemort’s, shall not be spoken.
As her Hollywood attorney was beginning Day 4 of trying to hammer out a severance package with NBC’s lawyers on the 1 ½ years that remain of a reported three-year $69 million contract, it was supposedly old-home week at the venerable NBC franchise.
But it didn’t yet look—or, for that matter, feel—like home.
It was an especially uncomfortable moment to be launching what Kotb told viewers is “a new chapter on the third hour,” with the promise that “the Today family…will bring you important stories just as we always have.”
By contrast, the drama surrounding Kelly—which had overwhelmed cable and social media for most of last week—was very much beside the point on Monday.
Perhaps unavoidably, the inaugural Megyn-less program was a strange hodgepodge of grave foreboding and forced bonhomie. It began in Studio 1A with Roker, Melvin and Kotb tossing to Savannah Guthrie on-location in front the synagogue, conducting a melancholy interview with Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto.
Then came a segment on how to heal from terrible tragedies featuring two Manhattan-based members of the clergy, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of the Central Synagogue, and Rev. Jacqui Lewis of the Middle Collegiate Church.
As powerful as the message of the segment—not surprisingly, to embrace love and reject hate—was the image on screen:
Melvin and Roker are African-American, as is Lewis; Kotb is the daughter of Muslim Egyptians; and Buchdahl, the country’s first Asian-American rabbi, was born in Seoul, Korea.
It was a visual juxtaposition, if not a rebuke, to the chanting, angry, nearly all-white crowds at Donald Trump’s nightly rallies.
“That was really beautiful,” Jenna Bush Hager commented—suddenly onscreen from her remote location in Studio 6A.
The program, at this point 24 minutes in, seemed an uneasy homage to cognitive dissonance.
With a studio audience applauding feebly off camera, and then in a few brief shots on camera, Hager introduced a packaged Halloween-themed piece on the ghosts that allegedly haunt the decommissioned Queen Mary ocean-liner; then came the father-daughter segment; then, at the end, a weirdly out-of-place cooking segment, in which Melvin and Roker, amid fake dry-ice fog, half-heartedly yukked it up and tasted various Halloween delicacies such as bat balls, bloodied fingers made of hot dogs and ketchup, crispy brains, and vampire blood cocktails.
And that was where Today’s third hour started to make as much sense as a corned beef sandwich slathered in mayonnaise.