Remembering Alex Trebek: What Jeopardy Lost When It Lost Its Host
“Jeopardy’s” longtime host Alex Trebek passed away a year ago today. And in the 12 months since, it’s become increasingly clear just how challenging the balancing act he pulled off was.
Trebek’s particular combination of traits as an emcee would have been impossible to specifically replicate, and the show, to its credit, knew this. (This may be one of the only things for which about “Jeopardy” in 2021 that deserves credit.) The venerable quiz show, at first, treated the rotating carnival of post-Trebek guest hosts as a way of trying out new ways the show might be. While certain of the virtues of the Trebek era were fixed, the show revised itself on the margins, every couple of weeks.
It became a parlor game to track the hosts’ performances and to imagine each as a potential permanent host. In retrospect, though, the show lost sight of Trebek’s organizing conceit: that the contestants were its true stars. Trebek’s consistency and his elemental qualities — a combination of amusement and prickliness — kept the spotlight on contestants. The best guest hosts managed to do this even while suggesting other sorts of charisma that could propel the show into its next decades, while the worst kept the focus on themselves.
But the process had begun to wear thin even before it came to seem engineered towards the installation of Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer and a figure whose unworthiness seemed obvious to all but those who had done the picking. (In addition to his less-than-electric profile as a broadcaster, Richards made news for offensive comments he made about women, Jews, and other groups on a podcast, and he eventually lost the job.) A year on, Trebek seems remarkable not merely for the fact that he avoided getting snared in similar controversies — it doesn’t take much to outclass Richards — but for the ways in which his bearing seemed to belong to a lost generation of television talent.
Mini-eruptions among the talent pool of potential Trebek replacements, before and after the selection was made, have included Ken Jennings’ tonally off tweets, Katie Couric’s revealing she selectively edited an interview to protect a public figure she admired, Aaron Rodgers’ vocal vaccine skepticism, and Mayim Bialik’s conflicted public relationship with vaccines. Many of these stories suggested a hunger to be at the center of the story that Trebek rarely exhibited. What was noteworthy about Trebek was not that viewers could count on his consistently agreeing with them — it was that the role he played did not necessitate venturing into the realm of the controversial, and so he did not.
Advocacy for that which one believes is a powerful thing. But so is simply showing up and presenting one’s example. In Trebek’s case, that meant living with a great deal of circumspection — a shocking amount, for someone who appeared on television five nights a week. And after a year of brassy self-promotion by potential Trebek replacements, and one in which several of them were found badly wanting, Trebek’s cultivated appeal to all potential viewers, and his power as a uniting force, seems sadly bygone. It’s not lost, surely, on series fans that in one of his final episodes, Trebek urged viewers to build a “kinder society,” a call that — made by someone whose life’s work had been in politics — might seem woefully vague. Here, though, it came freighted with meaning: A silence-breaking by someone who had for many years allowed his work with nervous, excited game-show contestants to speak for his values. (Notably, Richards recited Trebek’s call for kindness at the end of each of his episodes, in what came to seem like an attention-begging gambit. Trebek’s words mattered because they were special, not just rote.) Trebek’s work, and the show he anchored, became a part of the American pantheon because he so rarely made for a trending topic: His “Jeopardy” was conducted with care, kindness, professionalism, and a lack of flash.
The attention-begging year that followed has yielded a show that feels exhausting, and exhausted: This viewer, at least, needs some serious distance from the show before even considering watching it again. (From afar, Bialik, as guest host, does at least seem to have stabilized the show after Richards’ exit.)
The bad decisions made over the course of the year after Trebek’s death have made “Jeopardy” a lot less special, or revealed how much of its specialness was the result of unique effort by a host and producers now gone. Those decisions, too, suggest that today’s “Jeopardy” cares much more about filling Trebek’s seat than it does about the aspects of his legacy that make the show special, and sustainable. The show will surely go on in a literal sense — “Jeopardy” has its own momentum that not even a year of the most extreme kind of turbulence can upset — but what was once a show that stood apart, thanks to the work of Trebek and others, now looks a lot more like the rest of television. The glow Trebek lent, having been dimmed by a year of small-scale scandal and mismanagement, can’t be brought back.
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