The most-speculated-about podium in entertainment may have a new occupant.
The news that Mike Richards, the executive producer of “Jeopardy!,” is in advanced negotiations to take over as permanent host, filling the role once occupied by the late Alex Trebek, ends a guessing game that had run throughout 2021, as figures from throughout the world of TV took their turns reading answers and soliciting questions.
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To a viewer who checked out every one of the guest hosts, this outcome feels both preordained and surprising. The presence of Richards, a show insider, among vastly more well-known hosts was somewhat eyebrow-raising from the first. Richards’ performance was technically assured: He’s been a host on lesser shows like “Beauty and the Geek” before, and it’s no surprise that he knows the show he produces. But other hosts did a more effective job at bringing out contestants’ personalities than did Richards, who could be somewhat abrupt. Similarly halting were his show-ending tributes to Trebek. Though his intentions seemed good, Richards, in paying endless homage to his predecessor, ended up seeming the one thing the charmingly plainspoken Trebek rarely was: Stilted.
There will be time for Richards to grow into the role, and, once the deal is done, the franchise’s fans must now root for him: He is to be the host we’ve got on a show whose legacy and format set it apart among its competitors. And it’s time for the show to settle into its new order — the search couldn’t go on forever. Whether or not Richards was always going to be the choice, though, the show did itself a service by letting the process of cycling through guests play out for a bit. Not merely did the electricity of proximity to Trebek’s sad loss fade a bit — hosts came to grow somewhat less florid in their memorializing him as time went by — but the show also worked through some possibilities of what could work and what might not. The modern viewer’s only meaningful encounter with the show had been with Trebek at its helm. What might it look like with, say, a more radically empathic emcee, like Katie Couric? Or a more laconic one, like Aaron Rodgers? Or a more enthusiastic one, like LeVar Burton?
Couric, like others in her cohort, said she had no interest in the job, so her try-out was merely hypothetical — a chance, perhaps, to see what a host like Couric might bring to the role, or what a future host might learn from her. That Rodgers and Burton were actively campaigning for the job in the press added a fascinating wrinkle to the process. (And that Burton, a fan favorite with decades of on-camera experience who vocally wanted the job, couldn’t find a fitting tone suggests that finding a new host, and that hosting, are not as easy as the analyst on the couch might think.)
There was little true risk in the actual list of hosts “Jeopardy!” put forward — they were, in the main, either seasoned broadcasters or folks who knew the show well. (The most strikingly off-tone choice may have been Dr. Mehmet Oz, a circulator of misinformation — who nevertheless is experienced at being on camera.) But the handing over of what may be the crown jewel of syndicated TV to such a long list of possible hosts was a somewhat daring thing to do. It created a series of alternatives to whomever was going to be the final pick — giving a sense of all the possible ways “Jeopardy!” could look, and sowing the seeds of disappointment when one ended up winning out.
In candor, I’m among the audience members who’d hoped this choice might go a different way, all while suspecting that the executive producer’s presence among the suitors made this game one my personal favorites were destined to lose. But it stings a little less than it might have had Richards simply been announced as host from the outset.
That may be somewhat surprising. We’ve seen hosts throughout this process who were simply more compelling than was Richards, to be sure. But the key point that the succession of guest hosts made may have been this one: That the identity of the host matters less than we think.
Trebek, to be clear, is certainly sorely missed — and his farewell to viewers was painful and moving. He became iconic over decades, and perhaps, in the fullness of time, Richards may get the chance to do whatever is the equivalent in our fractured media landscape. But if we stipulate that Trebek brought something special to the show that cannot be replaced, his many potential successors, with many temperamental differences, were all fundamentally operating from a playbook he established.
“Jeopardy!,” for the months it cycled through new faces and new personae, was unchangeably “Jeopardy!” It creates its own gravity. Its contestants were, in the end, the stars — no matter how much focus the intrigue and novelty of various hosts managed to pull. And “Jeopardy!” is likelier to change the style of its so-far-untested host-in-waiting than it is to be changed by him.
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