Following Alex Trebek’s death, a parade of replacements indicates struggle to find apt host for Jeopardy!

·9 min read

On a recent Jeopardy! episode, one of the contestants, Mike Nelson, alighted on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Nelson €" "an actor originally from Chesterton, Indiana," as Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert introduced him €" selected an $800 clue that triggered a Daily Double. It was Anderson Cooper's first-night guest-hosting the show, but Nelson had a different man in mind as he made his wager. "I've always wanted to say this," Nelson said. "Let's make it a true Daily Double" €" and here Nelson closed his eyes and lifted his hands as if to signal for some kind of celestial field goal €" "Alex."

It was an awkward moment. Nelson's was just the kind of performative flourish that longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek might have met with an edge of condescension, curbing the overreaching contestant with a coolly perfunctory "OK." Trebek died last year of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80, amid his 37th season as the only host this iteration of Jeopardy! has ever known. His final episode aired 8 January, but his memory looms over the set and the show. He was so good at hosting Jeopardy!, so meticulous a steward of its clues, that he assumed a kind of moral authority. He came to be seen as a defender of knowledge for its own sake, "our generation's Cronkite," as record-setting Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings called him in 2019.

But the show must go on. Trebek's permanent successor has not been announced; instead, more than a dozen guest hosts will have stepped behind the lectern by season's end. They have already included mild-mannered super contestant Jennings and eternal TV sweetheart Katie Couric; still to come are gregarious former champ Buzzy Cohen and nerd-culture prince LeVar Burton. Some are just passing through, while others are vying for a permanent position, but all are implicated in a process that feels bigger than the game: The selection of the next host has turned into a culturewide referendum on our relationship to information itself.

Unlike quiz shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link, which lean into the sweaty-palmed tension of reality programming, Jeopardy! is uninterested in squeezing its intellectual contest for psychodrama. Trebek said the show's true star is its contestants, but from where I sit €" on my couch, shouting out answers-in-the-form-of-questions almost every night €" the real draw is the clues, which are precisely written and briskly dealt, numbering 61 over a typical three-act episode. Jeopardy! is a game about knowing things and knowing how to efficiently demonstrate how much you know. Every aspect of it demands expertise, from the recall of facts to how the contestants bet and handle the buzzer.

Now Jeopardy! is hunting for Trebek's successor amid an epistemological crisis €" when information is politicised, facts are negotiable and the elite accumulation of knowledge is regarded with suspicion. When the show announced that Mehmet Oz of The Dr. Oz Show would take a turn behind the lectern, a group of "concerned former contestants" wrote an open letter protesting that "a show that values facts and knowledge" was at odds with a celebrity doctor who could recently be seen boosting hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment on Fox News.

The guest hosts who have presided at Trebek's lectern so far €" 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker and his wonderfully Trebecois moustache began this week €" suggest, at least, four ways of reshaping the role. The categories are:

Champions

When Trebek abdicated the lectern just weeks before his death last November, it was Ken Jennings who stepped up first. In 2004, Jennings wrote himself into game show history when he won a record 74 Jeopardy! games in a row, and his ascension would supply a pleasing exclamation point to his narrative. His persona €" a Gen-Xer from Utah who presents as an amalgam of earnest and sardonic €" is so fused with the show's brand that it feels almost as if the producers cultured some Jeopardy! cells in a lab and grew them into a fully articulated new host.

The Jeopardy! lectern grants every host an omniscient perspective, a preternatural awareness of the question to every answer. The show's leader need not be a champion, but Jennings' facility at the game makes this little fiction feel reassuringly plausible. While Trebek did not write the clues, he had some influence over them, so his taste mattered; he was like the Jeopardy! head chef, checking each dish before it left the kitchen. A capable host should possess the standing to send a clue back €" and to gracefully neutralize a player, as Jennings did when he replied to one contestant's personal anecdote with Alex's brusque "Good for you."

Celebrity Doctors

Oz is a real doctor who plays a fake doctor on TV. He hosted Jeopardy! like an alien from another television universe. He was always dealing some smarmy anecdote about his friendship with Trebek and emphasising that he performs surgery on hearts. His style consisted of languidly imprecise clue readings punctuated with vigorous gestures, like pulling his fists tight to his chest as if impersonating a passionate Italian chef. It felt as if Oz had gone on Jeopardy! to sell something €" presumably, himself.

At the top of one episode, he tried to describe the game and made it sound insane. "I have always admired the human body, like when athletes accomplish incredible feats," he said. The show "took my appreciation of our brains to a whole new level," he added, pointing to his skull and paying tribute to the "three pounds of synapses" up there. A Jeopardy! host should not cram the program with his own lesser facts.

News Anchors

One of the disappointments of the Jeopardy! guest host pool is its overreliance on midcareer television journalists. In addition to Couric, Cooper and Whitaker, the show will feature "Good Morning America" anchors Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos and Today show anchor Savannah Guthrie. There is an overlap between Jeopardy! host and television journalist €" both jobs require a telegenic presence and fleet-footed interview skills €" but Jeopardy! is not the news, and it should not feel like it. The Jeopardy! viewing experience includes absorbing garish local news teasers about some poor neighbour being murdered in a bizarre way during the commercial breaks, and when the show resumes, it should feel aloof to the whims of the day's events, dedicated instead to the arcane. Once Cooper bounded onstage with his sweep of silver hair and 24-hour cable news energy, the distinction collapsed.

Couric, at least, leaned on her morning news chops to spin the show in a fresh direction. Couric was unapologetically on the side of the players; she was so encouraging, she seemed disappointed that not everybody could win. Her style helped illuminate the secret behind Trebek's own cool demeanour: If he sometimes seemed hostile to the contestants, it was because he reserved his ultimate respect for the show, with all its quirks (the answer-questions, the puns, the unabashed bias for the liberal arts). He made rigour charming: Born in Canada, Trebek enforced the proper pronunciation of French words and tsk-tsked the lack of attention to the country's geography. Contestants come and go; the host of Jeopardy! should be on the side of the clues.

Jocks

One crucial category of host that has yet to make its Jeopardy! debut is the celebrity nerd. Later this month, Mayim Bialik, the teenage star of Blossom turned neuroscientist, will take the lectern. In July, after a groundswell of online support, Burton, whose tenures on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Reading Rainbow have elevated him into geek royalty, will take his turn in July. In her book "Answers in the Form of Questions," Claire McNear writes that Jeopardy! represents the height of "nerdy validation," so it feels natural for a member of this social archetype to make an appearance. What's more surprising is the success of a host plucked from the other side of the high school cafeteria: a jock.

When Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback and legitimate Jeopardy! obsessive took the stage, I eyed him warily. Like Oz, he appeared to be an interloper from another television genre. Then, in one of his early games, Rodgers read a $400 clue ("In the 1960s these Midwesterners earned 5 NFL Championship trophies"), and when no one buzzed in with the correct answer €" "Who are the Green Bay Packers?" €" he extended his arms in this charmingly deflated manner, and I was disarmed.

When Cooper wedged a joke into the show, it seemed opportunistic; it felt like he was trying to outwit the game format. But something about Rodgers' own quirks felt humbly earned. Although each of the guest hosts genuflected to their privileged position, Rodgers radiated a golden-retriever quality that cast an inviting energy over the proceedings. Some of Rodgers' appeal is attributable to his understated persona, but it also feels related to his status: Rodgers is truly excellent at football €" he was named MVP this past season, at the age of 37 €" and there is something endearing about his interest in becoming excellent at facts, too.

I am not excellent at Jeopardy! The trivia-themed insurance ads that air during commercial breaks are more my speed; I proudly identify as a GEICO Jeopardy! champion. Watching the show doesn't make me feel smart, but it does make me feel included in its wider intellectual project. There is something incredibly soothing about being swept up, night after night, in its fount of information.

Trebek's successor will not only become the keeper of the clues but a cultural defender of facts. It's interesting that the standout stand-ins so far have been, on the one hand, the most beloved champion in the show's history, and, on the other, someone from totally out of left field. If Jennings represents the show's pursuit of excellence, Rodgers exemplifies its democratic undercurrent: Everyone can play along at home.

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