Last Monday, celebrity physician and TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz began his two-week stint as guest host of “Jeopardy!” Frequent Twitter users knew about the change well before Oz’s first episode aired.
When “Jeopardy!” released a preview teaser last Monday showing Oz’s first moments on camera, the tweet quickly got “ratioed.” Fans replied with all manner of comments about Oz’s history of offering dubious medical advice and promoting questionable products on his show (enough that the topic has its own Wikipedia article).
Weeks before Oz’s episodes aired, more than 600 former “Jeopardy!” contestants signed a petition calling for the show to rethink its invitation. Last Monday, both #BoycottJeopardy and LeVar Burton — a favorite of some to take the show’s permanent hosting duties — trended on Twitter, illustrating the depth of the backlash.
During each guest host’s episodes, the show will match contestants’ winnings, donating them to a charity of the host’s choice. Oz selected HealthCorps, a charity he founded. “Jeopardy!” executive producer (and earlier guest host) Mike Richards previously said not all of the show’s guest hosts will receive serious consideration for the permanent gig, with some of them “just there for charity and to show their love of the game.”
Katie Couric, who hosted before Oz, already took herself out of the running as “Jeopardy!” full-time host. It seems entirely possible that Oz’s invitation to host the show for two weeks stemmed in large part from his close relationship with “Jeopardy!” late, great host, Alex Trebek.
Given that connection and the backlash to his appearance, one wouldn’t bet heavily on him permanently succeeding his friend Trebek. His performance during his first week of shows didn’t help on that count, either.
A Charismatic Presence…
From his first episode on Monday, three things about Oz’s performance became readily apparent. First, in an apparently new practice for a “Jeopardy!” host, Oz went through the contestant interview segments entirely without notes.
During the “talk spot” with contestants, Trebek and the other guest hosts would normally hold a series of small index cards with each contestant’s name, location (or, if living in Los Angeles, where the contestant was “originally from”), their occupation, and a couple of conversation starters provided ahead of time by the contestants to the production staff.
Trebek would often mention the cards by reference during the interviews, starting them by saying, “It says here that you…” But Oz eschewed them entirely, either leaving them at the lectern or putting the information to memory before he came on stage.
The way he modified the contestant interviews was of a piece with the way Oz handled hosting duties generally. He seemed at ease in front of the camera and ad-libbing to keep the show flowing smoothly. If former “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings lacked a certain on-stage presence and gravitas, Oz displayed it in abundance — both for good and for ill.
…But Also Too Charismatic
While Oz didn’t lack charisma, he also didn’t seem to lack modesty either. Between his New York-ish accent (he lives outside the city, in northern New Jersey) and his up-front demeanor, he seemed brash for the traditionally staid “Jeopardy!” — a shot of espresso instead of a milder decaf.
Writing in Variety that Oz’s episodes gave “Jeopardy!” a black eye, Daniel D’Addario hit at the issue underlying both Oz’s appearance and performance on the show: “Oz is, unlike Jennings and Richards, comfortable playing host on TV; unlike Couric, he’s given no indication he’s not interested in boosting his profile with daily appearances on a very widely watched game show.”
Therein lies the larger concern: That “Jeopardy!” attempts to find a “star” for the show — Trebek always viewed himself as the “host,” and the contestants as the stars — and becomes a celebrity-based program. Last week’s episodes demonstrated the dangers of that approach: Whereas Trebek almost always came off as calm and debonair, Oz’s presence often bordered on slick.
The lingering controversy about Oz’s appearance makes him unlikely to receive the permanent hosting nod. A good thing, too, because “Jeopardy!” can do better.