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Jeopardy: Greatest of All Time Has Us Feeling Weepy Over Alex Trebek

Analyzing the super-sized tournament and Alex Trebek’s legacy behind the Jeopardy! podium.
  • Jeopardy! legends James Holzhauer, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings will battle it out in this week's three-night primetime event, Jeopardy: Greatest of All Time. (ABC)
    Jeopardy! legends James Holzhauer, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings will battle it out in this week's three-night primetime event, Jeopardy: Greatest of All Time. (ABC)

    Just so we’re clear, this week’s Jeopardy: Greatest of All Time tournament is not the series finale. The tournament, airing on ABC this week in primetime features three titans of the show’s recent past: Ken Jennings, who holds the record for most consecutive games won; Brad Rutter, who holds the record for most money won on a game show; and James Holzhauer, who holds all ten of the top ten single-game winnings records. Based on the hype surrounding the week-long battle, you’d be forgiven if you thought that deciding this grudge match would leave nothing left for Jeopardy! to prove. But regular-season episodes resumed taping once the tournament wrapped in late November, and although Alex Trebek has apparently put some thought into what he'll say in his last episode, so far as we know, no such episode is currently planned.

    It does seem clear, though, that the current iteration of the long-running series is winding down, and it seems unlikely that a contender will emerge to run roughshod over the competition and challenge the notion that Jennings, Rutter, or Holzhauer truly is the all-time GOAT of the Trebek era.

    Before host Alex Trebek announced last March that he was battling pancreatic cancer, it seemed like the show would be around forever. With nearly 7,000 episodes under its belt, the Trebek-hosted version of the series has been around for 36 years years. But while no final Trebek-hosted episode has been set, Trebek himself is now keenly aware that he has an expiration date, as he explained to Michael Strahan in the primetime special, What Is Jeopardy?, which aired last week.

    This doesn’t discount, of course, the idea that the series could continue with a replacement host. The idea becomes less unthinkable when we consider that The Price Is Right barely missed a beat after the departure of Bob Barker. 

    But there’s something special about the mythology of Trebek within Jeopardy!. Bob Barker never projected the aura that he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of vacuum cleaner prices and Plinko angles. Pat Sajak isn’t necessarily the first person you’d call if you were stuck on a crossword clue. (Or, for that matter, Vanna White, heroic as her recent stint subbing for Sajak might have been.) But Alex Trebek, with his perpetually calm authority and impeccable pronunciation, truly does seem like he is adjudicating the show based on his own knowledge. (It’s not true, of course, but it’s not completely incorrect, either; What Is Jeopardy? revealed that Trebek spends an inordinate amount of time in the Jeopardy! writers’ room.) Trebek has also never missed an episode, so it’s even harder to picture someone else behind his podium. Whatever Jeopardy! sans Trebek looks like, it surely wouldn’t seem like the same show at first, and probably not ever.

    As my colleague Aaron Barnhart wrote last week, Trebek is a cornerstone of the show’s identity; smarter than you, the viewer, but not so far outside your intellectual grasp that an idiot like you can’t be entertained and impressed by it. It’s a delicate balance to strike for a host -- too eggheady and the average viewer will feel condescended to; too clownish and the show will lose its gravitas.

    This echoes the reputation Jeopardy! itself has always held as the exclusive purview of (for lack of a better term) smarty-pants know-it-alls. From the grueling tests issued during the casting process to the sheer scope of possible categories that could appear in competition, there is a particular point of pride associated with being a Jeopardy! contestant. It’s not unheard of for a Jeopardy! alum to turn up on other, non-trivia-based game shows (in fact, it seems fairly common), but none of them require contestants to possess the same breadth of knowledge. At the same time, being on Jeopardy! is guaranteed to impress almost anybody. In fact, it’s almost infuriating how much more difficult it is to, say, earn a Ph.D. than it is to win a spot on Jeopardy!, and then compare the average person’s response to learning either of these facts.

    But back to the Greatest of All Time. Where exactly does it fit into the Jeopardy mythos? It’s neither the most involved tournament nor the first to air on a network. Lest we forget, 1990’s Super Jeopardy!, which added a fourth contestant seat and offered an at-the-time unprecedented cash prize, also aired in prime time and purported to determine the best of the best...and was almost universally panned. Granted, the show’s bench was only six seasons deep at the time, and Super Jeopardy! constituted a major departure from the show’s usual format. Each episode of the Greatest of All Time tournament, while super-sized, is nothing more than two full Jeopardy! games played back to back, and each contestant is a legend in his own right with a preestablished fan base.

    At this point we have to acknowledge that the alleged Greatest of All Time will also have an asterisk by his name given that two of its contestants were unhindered by the fact that prior to 2004, champions could only win five games before being retired. (Brad Rutter first appeared on Jeopardy in 2000 and was retired after five games. He won the majority of his money in championship tournaments.) While 2013’s Battle of the Decades (which Rutter won) attempted to mitigate this, is it truly the Greatest of All Time if there might have been other pre-2004 contenders who could have racked up a Holzhauer-size pile of cash given enough consecutive wins?

    While it would indeed be impossible to truly determine Jeopardy!’s greatest player without a time machine, everything about this week’s tournament -- the double-stacked episodes, the tougher questions, the huge personalities -- is at least striving for the upper echelons. And if it does turn out to be one of the final highlights of Trebek’s long hosting career, let’s hope it’s as epic as we’ve been promised.

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    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: Jeopardy!, ABC, Alex Trebek, Brad Rutter, James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, Game Shows