The distinction is so subtle that many daily devotees of America’s most popular quiz show probably haven’t noticed. “And now, here is the host of Jeopardy! … Mayim Bialik!” boomed the show’s 93-year-old announcer Johnny Gilbert. A week later, though, here was Gilbert’s introduction: “And now, hosting Jeopardy! … Ken Jennings!” On a show where leaving the “s” off an answer can be costly, words matter a lot. And though they sound nearly identical, the difference between these phrases offers clues: a clue as to where Jeopardy! finds itself in this season like no other, and a clue about steps being taken to ensure that one of TV’s oldest-skewing shows retains its grip on the popular culture.
After Alex Trebek died 13 months ago, a parade of guest hosts filed through the Sony Pictures Studios stage that was later renamed in the late star’s honor. Unspoken was the fact that these were tryouts for the gig of Jeopardy!’s permanent emcee. Mayim Bialik, an in-demand TV actor best known for her Jeopardy!-forward role on The Big Bang Theory, and Ken Jennings, officially the greatest Jeopardy! player of all time and a consulting producer on the show, appeared to lead the pack of hopefuls.
Some months later, though, the producer selected to succeed the retiring Harry Friedman as Jeopardy!’s showrunner surprised everyone by anointing himself the show’s new permanent host. With an unimpressive two-week hosting stint to his credit, this producer somehow convinced Sony management that his was the future face of Jeopardy!, until a reporter unearthed an anti-Semitic podcast that the producer hilariously assumed he had erased from the Internet. (Who is Mike Richards?)
After that guy skedaddled, Sony was left without either a host or a showrunner. With a new season underway, show executives had to act fast. The first move was brilliant, bringing in Michael Davies as showrunner. Davies is the producer who brought Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to American TV in the late 1990s and sparked this phenomenon around a daytime talk-show host and frequent guest on David Letterman’s show. (What is Regismania?) Calling the addition of Davies a breath of fresh air is not unlike calling your first meal in a restaurant after the lockdown a breath of fresh air. Yes, it marked a return to normalcy, but it is definitely a new normal.
In addition to his day job in production, Davies is one half, with Roger Bennett, of this expat soccer show whose quarter-million Twitter followers know him as Davo (what is Men in Blazers?). Nothing erases the bitterness of a backstage scandal like ratings success, and Jeopardy! has been on an unprecedented roll, with two contestants getting on gigantic winning streaks within weeks of each other: Matt Amodio piled on 38 straight victories and Amy Schneider followed that feat by winning 40 in a row. To Davo, this seemed the perfect moment to introduce a long-missing game element to Jeopardy! fandom: sabermetrics.
“In some significant ways, Jeopardy! also has many of the qualities of a major league sport,” Davies wrote on the show blog. (Indeed, Jeopardy! telecasts, with more than 9 million viewers daily, rate higher than any other sport not branded by the NFL.) So why not, Davies argued, publish stats from each game? They’re games, after all. Online fans have been compiling show stats for years, but theirs were always missing a key metric known only to Jeopardy! producers — namely, how good the contestants are at mastering the game’s infernal buzzer. Thus the show’s fascinating new daily box score, which revealed that Amy Schneider is the Steph Curry of buzzer management, while the average Jeopardy! winner is more like a G League standout.
We can only speculate why, now of all times, Jeopardy! has chosen to be more transparent with its data. Maybe Davo really did sell his bosses on the idea. Also, his bosses may be open to any ideas that divert attention from the hosting derby, a simmering online topic that boils over each time a new story posts about Mayim Bialik.
Do a search for her name and you’ll see screen after screen of trumped-up stories about fan “outrage” at how she is handling, or mishandling, the hosting chores on Jeopardy! Did you know that people on Twitter are FURIOUS because Bialik sometimes refers to the show’s opening round as “Single Jeopardy”? One viewer declared, “It is NOT called Single Jeopardy!” Actually, it is called Single Jeopardy, and has been for years, by Davo and game nerds and presumably all true fans of clarity.
Bialik has also been finger-wagged online for not vaccinating her children, earning her the label “anti-vax” (she’s not). And her confession in a 2017 New York Times op-ed that she was glad her figure wasn’t sexy enough for Harvey Weinstein to notice earned her pushback for being an antediluvian feminist and “slut-shamer.” A more reasonable conclusion would be that Bialik, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, was using the #metoo moment as a chance to promote her brand (mind over body) and to challenge fatphobic, body-hating images that are pumped out of Hollywood’s dream factory by the terabyte. But it seems all the reasonable people have bailed from social media.
Old media hasn’t been much kinder to Bialik since she was named one of the two guest hosts for this season and was chosen over Jennings to host the Jeopardy! prime time specials, including the National College Championship that ends tonight. (Thankfully for these too-young contestants, their box scores are not being posted to the web. A player from my alma mater, which shall go unnamed, responded to a clue about Henry VIII’s second wife thusly: “Who is Mary [sic] Antoinette?” Oy.)
One alleged Hollywood insider got a lot of play last summer when he published a report asserting that Bialik — who has openly stated she’d like the Jeopardy! job full time — would simply be unable to do that while also starring in this sitcom on Fox. (What is Call Me Kat?) Jeopardy! tapes four days a month. Sony Pictures Studios is an hour’s drive from where Call Me Kat is taped. And yet it took months for anyone to ask the guy who actually puts her show on the schedule whether she could do both. “Truth is, Mayim being on Jeopardy! isn’t the worst thing for Call Me Kat,” Fox chief Michael Thorn finally said in January.
To be sure, Bialik has been thrust into a role she wasn’t fully prepared for, like a student driver taking to this high-speed German expressway. (What is the autobahn?) In a candid interview she admitted that producers had to remove one of the two red emergency buttons at her podium because she kept pressing the wrong one. There are still unnatural pauses between the time when a contestant guesses and when Bialik declares whether the answer is correct or not. She seems to rely on producers more than Jennings or last year’s “Tournament of Champions” guest host Buzzy Cohen, whose lightning-quick “No!” in response to wrong guesses still rattles in my head. Is this something she’s working on and will get better at? She already has. She’s an actor, she’s paid to be teachable.
Like many viewers, I picked a favorite in the Jeopardy! hosting derby early on. Mine was LeVar Burton. But when he moved on, so did I. Buzzy was a fantastic whip-cracker/ballbreaker during the annual tournament, but I could see how that might wear thin after a while. And then I thought, “C’mon, let KenJen have it!” But I realize now that it’s going to be Mayim.
And for the good of the show, it should be Mayim. She’s a highly visible, relatable female of a certain age with research showing her appeal to the demo that advertisers want to reach. And I have to admit that she, along with KenJen, have helped right the Jeopardy! ship and are among the reasons we’ve forgotten the hosting-succession debacle of a few months ago. I’ll go further: As amazing as those two contestants were, had their runs occurred under a host unworthy to stand on the Alex Trebek Stage, Jeopardy! would still be in trouble.
That’s because Jeopardy! can’t rely on the next Matt Amodio any more than CNN can count on the next Donald Trump. Syndicated TV is under enormous pressure from an industry that’s going all-in with streaming. One of the two companies that produces Jeopardy! just changed its name to Paramount so people would think of their streaming channel. For all of its recent success, the future of Jeopardy! is far from certain. I’m not even going to look up the average age of a Jeopardy! viewer because I don’t want to be depressed. But it’s old — hence all the Prevagen ads.
Since practically the dawn of television, network executives have known there are only two ways to fix an audience problem: either with new talent or a new show. It’s a poorly-kept secret that if you’re a woman and you do well in the online qualifiers, you’re going to get on Jeopardy! PDQ. Men who qualify have to wait their turn to play. Bottom line: Young female viewers are the key to the show’s future.
And that is why Johnny Gilbert introduces the two guest hosts the way he does. Ken Jennings is “hosting” Jeopardy! because it’s on loan to him one week at a time. Mayim Bialik is “the host” of Jeopardy! because the show’s permanent host-designate is Mayim Bialik. Six months ago I would have written those words through clenched teeth. Three months ago I was resigned to it. Now? As someone who wants to see Jeopardy! go on and on and on, it’s the only right move for Sony. I’m pleased with the tweaks that Davies has been making to the show, and he should be allowed to drop “interim” from his title. I’m also fine with the host lady. Someday, maybe, you will be, too.
The Jeopardy! National College Championship concludes tonight at 8:00 PM ET on ABC.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek, Ken Jennings, LeVar Burton, Mayim Bialik