Remembering the craziest era of the storied game show’s history
A year is an eternity in “Jeopardy!” time. Consider the fact that at the start of 2021, Alex Trebek, who passed away in November 2020, still had a week’s worth of episodes in the can. There was no sign of the myriad controversies that would define the year to come. Nobody accusing anyone of throwing alleged three-percenter symbols on national TV, no Dr. Oz, no executive producers and their palace intrigue. Nobody had to speculate about anyone’s stance on the COVID vaccine. We didn’t even know who Bean Dad was. By all accounts, Trebek’s very public battle with pancreatic cancer had given the show’s staff time to make a smooth transition, a succession plan. Instead, we got a year of behind-the-scenes drama that rivaled “Succession.”
By now we know the details: instead of naming a replacement host in January, executive producer Mike Richards decided to conduct a series of rolling auditions over the next seven months, bringing in a variety of newscasters, actors, and assorted public figures for short stints on the job, as well as his own eventual pick for the permanent job: himself. Although Richards had guest-hosted ten episodes early in the search and everyone understood that he was among the candidates for the job, the optics of the decision couldn’t have been worse. Seven months of guest hosts of occasionally dubious quality made the most august quiz show of them all feel like a farce.
Within days of the announcement in August, a scathing report by Claire McNear of “The Ringer” revealed much of the havoc of Richards’ tenure, as well as past sexual harassment allegations and a pattern of misogynistic and anti-Semitic comments he’d made on his podcast. After Richards’ first week of tapings, he stepped down as host, and Sony quickly fired him thereafter. It was perhaps the lowest point in “Jeopardy’s” history: an absolute power vacuum. No permanent host, no producer, no certainty going forward.
A funny thing was happening at the same time, though. A Yale Ph.D. student named Matt Amodio had appeared on the show in July. Winning, by a lot, and then winning some more. He won when Robin Roberts hosted. He won when LeVar Burton hosted. And then David Faber, and Joe Buck, and Mike Richards, and Mayim Bialik. As chaos reigned backstage, Amodio won 38 games in a row, second-most all-time. Almost in spite of itself, “Jeopardy” was becoming appointment viewing again.
Mayim Bialik took over for Richards, after which Ken Jennings came in and more or less assumed the job for the foreseeable future. Eventually, Amodio was defeated by Jonathan Fisher, who would himself win eleven games. Fisher lost to Tyler Rhode, who won five. A week later, Andrew He started his own five-game streak, eventually being bested by Amy Schneider, who is the current returning champion; as of this week, Schneider has won 20 games and counting. Schneider is already the fourth-winningest contestant and the most successful woman in Jeopardy history, and the first openly trans person to do this well on the show. Matters of representation aside, Schneider is special: by some of the advanced metrics available on thejeopardyfan.com, she’s even outplaying Amodio and approaching the game-breaking numbers put up by James Holzhauer.
It’s unclear whether the barrage of five-day champions is the result of a historically weak contestant pool or the sheer coincidence of having a few elite contestants appear on the show in a short time. To be clear, getting on “Jeopardy” is a major accomplishment, and even a weak contestant has made it through a fairly grueling testing process to get there. Still, nothing like this has ever happened before in the span of just a couple of months, which happen to coincide with the start of a new season, significant turnover on the staff, and the end of the host controversy. Something seems fundamentally different about “Jeopardy” this season, even if we aren’t privy to what that might be.
After a few disjointed months of off-screen tumult, it’s led to some marvelously entertaining television, especially as Amodio and Schneider have settled into amiable rapport with Jennings. Crucially, they’ve both revealed themselves to be witty and media-savvy, quipping with fans on social media and penning illuminating essays about their personal experiences. The show couldn’t have asked for better ambassadors, especially with its reputation flailing.
As for Bialik, who hosted the recently-concluded professor’s tournament? Bialik is fine. Still shilling dubious brain tonics, still ham-fistedly trying to square away her old comments about vaccines with the prestige of her new position, but she’s fine. Fine is good enough, it turns out, compared to some of the possibilities.
In Trebek’s memoir, published in 2020, he reflected on what made him so successful at his job, writing, “You are there to make the contestants relax enough that they can demonstrate their skills. They are the stars of the show. They are the ones the viewers tuned in to see. And if you do that, if you put the focus on the players rather than yourself, the viewers will look on you as a good guy. If that’s the way I’m remembered, I’m perfectly happy with that.” Trebek understood something that some of his colleagues evidently didn’t: the public face of “Jeopardy” represents authority, not celebrity. If the show’s chaotic 2021 is any sort of indication, Jeopardy won’t make that mistake again.