LeVar Burton had a surprisingly lousy week as the host of ‘Jeopardy!’, drawing focus from one of the best players in the show’s history
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Seven months into the “Jeopardy!” guest host experiment, LeVar Burton finally got his chance to step behind the podium last week. Burton was the sentimental favorite for the job among many viewers and former contestants, openly lobbying for a chance to host as the likes of Dr. Oz and Katie Couric received mixed reviews and ratings declined. While announcing the first few hosts, the show played coy, encouraging fans to stump for their favorites. Nearly 300,000 people signed a petition on change.org advocating for Burton, and they eventually got their wish.
Following his turn as host, an uncomfortable truth has emerged: LeVar Burton just isn’t very good at this. Whatever positive connotations one had of him from his lengthy career as an actor and “Reading Rainbow” host, it’s clear that this is not really the right milieu for his talents. His cadence was strange and off-kilter, as he sometimes stressed the wrong words and phrases in a clue. Contestants rang in only to have Burton meet them with lengthy pauses before he prompted them to answer. It was a much choppier show than it was during Alex Trebek’s tenure, to say nothing of any of the other guest host spots in 2021. Burton’s enthusiasm was obvious and commendable, but each overly excited “YES!” response only added to the distraction.
It’s worth considering whether the metaphorical optics of Burton as a potential host–his dedication to literacy, his obvious desire for the job, the all-consuming pull of childhood nostalgia–were always secondary to the fact that he came into this job with exactly zero game-show hosting experience. There was never a guarantee that he’d be good. Yet his all-or-nothing aspect of #TeamLeVar and its proponents evinced a troubling sense of performative wokeness. The general toxicity of “Jeopardy!” stan culture never went anywhere, but now it combined with an alienating sense of predetermination. It somehow became Burton’s job to lose, vouchsafed before he ever stepped foot on the set.
In ‘Jeopardy!’ time, a week of shows get taped in a single day, and it was clear that Monday’s episode was not Burton’s best effort. In an interview with the Associated Press, he admitted as much, saying that he “started having fun” on Tuesday when he loosened up a little and started acting more like himself. Yet by week’s end, he was still making rudimentary mistakes. Perhaps he was having a good time, but it wasn’t good television.
Burton’s stint at host may turn out to be nowhere near as newsworthy as the people who played this week. The current champion, Yale Ph.D student Matt Amodio, is one of the most impressive contestants in the history of the show, with an eight-day total of $291,200. Amodio plays a methodical style, preferring to slow down the game and bet big when he hits a Daily Double. This has been tremendously lucrative, but it isn’t necessarily the sort of thing that charms casual viewers. Twitter users even wondered whether “Jeopardy!” scheduled Burton’s week against the first week of the Olympics as a form of sabotage. Would there be as much pushback if anyone else was hosting?
What people seem to be forgetting amidst all the hype is the single thing that makes ‘Jeopardy!’ so successful: it’s about the contestants, not the host. Alex Trebek famously refused to be introduced as “the star of Jeopardy,” and went out of his way over the years to credit the contestants with the show’s longevity. We can debate the merits of LeVar Burton all we want, but this wasn’t his week. It was Matt Amodio’s.