An old axiom states that no news is good news. For “Jeopardy!,” that mantra has certainly applied to the last several weeks.
In August, the sense of stability and solidity the program cultivated over decades evaporated seemingly overnight. Within days of naming Mike Richards as its permanent host to replace Alex Trebek, it had to replace him as host for making a series of offensive remarks, eventually firing Richards as the show’s executive producer too.
The show recruited Mayim Bialik, originally hired to emcee “Jeopardy!” network specials and spin-offs, as a fill-in to replace Richards as host of the syndicated program. And it had to endure an incredibly awkward week of episodes hosted by Richards, which were taped prior to his termination but aired after his firing.
By last week, however, those dramatic events of late summer seemed, if not ancient history, at least in “Jeopardy’s” rearview mirror. Ken Jennings returned for a second stint as guest host; he and Bialik will preside over episodes through the end of calendar year 2021.
Changes Since Last Fall
By the time Jennings returned to the lectern, he did not see a familiar face at the returning champion’s position in the studio. In an episode that aired October 11 (and the first episode after Richards’s ouster as executive producer), Matt Amodio lost after 38 wins and just over $1.5 million in earnings.
Amodio’s winning streak ranks second behind only Jennings’s run in 2004, and his earnings total ranks third behind Jennings and James Holzhauer. Likewise, the man who defeated Amodio, Jonathan Fisher, completed his own 11-day run as champion in October, earning early $250,000 in the process.
Jennings’s comportment also changed during last week’s episodes when compared to his first stint behind the lectern. His first round of episodes taped in late November 2020, mere weeks after Trebek’s death last November 8. I noted in January that Jennings seemed subdued in his first week of episodes as host, no doubt in part due to the somber mood at the time and his nerves.
In the episodes that aired last week, however, Jennings appeared more willing to open up a bit. He engaged with contestants, for instance making comments about a Russian category as it related to a contestant who had studied in St. Petersburg. Overall, he seemed less ill-at-ease than he had in January, and even occasionally willing to crack a joke.
Monday Morning Quarterbacking
But one negative trait cropped up on several occasions last week when Jennings made comments about contestants’ wagering and strategy. “You could have bet bigger; you’d be in the lead,” he said last Monday after a contestant got a Daily Double correct. He made similar remarks liking particular contestants’ aggressive betting strategies during Final Jeopardy.
In fairness, Trebek would also occasionally participate in this same behavior. He could try to goad people into big wagers (“If you made this a true Daily Double and responded correctly…”), to the point that two champions noted this tendency in a book published nearly 30 years ago.
But Jennings seemed to do this more frequently during last week’s episodes. Moreover, as a former champion himself, for Jennings to insert his commentary about how contestants choose to play the game could add more pressure to an already intense environment for most players. If Jennings wants to host “Jeopardy!,” he should host “Jeopardy!.” and not armchair quarterback contestants from behind his own lectern.
Whither the Hosting Search?
As to the permanent host of “Jeopardy!,” that remains unknown. The show has not announced plans for emcees beyond the end of the calendar year, although it should do so shortly, as episodes airing in January will likely get taped in the next few weeks.
As former champion Arthur Chu noted in a column written after Richards’s departure, a lower-key host search is consistent with the “Jeopardy!” ethos, which places the contestants—and not the emcee—at the heart of the show. Richards, who supervised last season’s rotating cavalcade of guest hosts, turned “Jeopardy!” into a mini-circus, one in which people tuned in to watch the host, not the contestants, and in which most of the people “rooting” for a particular guest host to get the permanent nod were by definition going to be disappointed.
“Jeopardy!” could, and should, entertain other names than Bialik and Jennings as the permanent host for the syndicated program. But Michael Davies, who developed the American version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and succeeded Richards as executive producer, should also use a more dignified, and less chaotic, process to select the show’s ultimate host. The fact that “Jeopardy!” has started to move on from the tumult of the summer suggests that the production team will do exactly that.