The answer — for now — is Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik.
“Jeopardy!” producers answered the biggest question in entertainment on Thursday when they announced that Seattle trivia king Jennings and television star Bialik have been named the hosts of “Jeopardy!” through the end of the calendar year.
Show producers announced the move Thursday morning in a two-paragraph news release that ends a month of speculation over who will lead the American syndicated television juggernaut.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but in general this is great news for Jennings, the trivia superstar who owns “Jeopardy!” records for consecutive wins and career earnings. He won the show’s $1 million “Greatest of All Time” tournament in 2020 and is now a “Jeopardy!” consulting producer and the star of ABC’s game show “The Chase.”
He’s also, for now, the host of “Jeopardy!”, a lifelong daydream achieved through determination and sheer will over a 17-year period of constant success on the show.
“I’ve been rooting for Ken all along, so I’ll be glad to see him back,” said Tom Nissley, one of Seattle’s most accomplished “Jeopardy!” champions. “And, yeah, it’s hard to say what it means long-term, and it’s good they’re not trying the guest host every one or two weeks thing anymore. That seems very unstable, especially in the current environment.”
Ah, yes, the current environment is cloudy, tempestuous, chaotic — take your pick — since the departure of Mike Richards, whose one week of episodes as host are airing this week in an odd bit of schadenfreude when juxtaposed with Matt Amodio’s incredible climb up the championship rankings.
The 38th season, and first without late host Alex Trebek, started Sept. 13 with a week of prerecorded shows featuring Richards. Trebek’s original replacement was booted from the job — and his duties as executive producer of “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” — a week after he was named host in August. He was dropped after reports emerged about his alleged inappropriate behavior while working as executive producer at “The Price is Right” and a series insensitive jokes made on a podcast he hosted.
The hope is this week’s hosting announcement will calm things down. Bialik will host shows from Sept. 20 through Nov. 5, the news release said. She and Jennings will split hosting duties as their schedule allows after that for the remainder of 2021.
“Jeopardy!” publicists did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Jennings and Bialik.
Like Jennings, Bialik has the nerd bona fides.
A trained neuroscientist, the actor has been in the entertainment spotlight for decades as a star of “Blossom” and “The Big Bang Theory.” She did well in her guest host stint last spring and was originally named a co-host of sorts with Mike Richards this summer. She was slated to host prime-time specials and tournaments while Richards handled the main hosting duties.
While many hailed Thursday’s move as a positive — an initial announcement that “Jeopardy!” would again employ guest hosts drew a collective groan — it was still a bit of a head-scratcher. Why bother with the interim tag for a pair of candidates who seemed to earn the job in the first place?
“So much of this was tone deaf,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture and a trustee professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University. “And now this idea of extending it further, it’s almost as though they’re saying, ‘I don’t want to get this cavity filled. I just want to keep kind of poking at it.'”
Thompson said it’s yet another misstep in a series of baffling moves that can only be explained by ineptitude.
“This show that’s been on since the ’60s, everybody’s talking about it, but all publicity is not good publicity,” Thompson said. “The best thing that could happen for ‘Jeopardy!’ right now would be to get somebody who doesn’t have skeletons in their closet, who can do a competent job and let the format of a show that could potentially go on for another 50 years go off and do what it’s been doing.
“It’s almost as though they are deliberately trying to set up a case study for a university public relations course in how not to do something.”
To review, Thompson — and much of the viewership — was on board with the idea of a series of guest hosts in the wake of Trebek’s death last November. And it went well initially, with Jennings, who is not a television professional by trade, taking the hardest shift. He was the first to host the show in January with a six-week run. Richards did two weeks following Jennings.
NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers got a lot of interest, as did Bialik and actor LeVar Burton. But throughout the run, interest among core viewers began to wane and rancor began to grow among groups agitating for more diversity.
“The way they put that together made it look like — even though they claimed it wasn’t — an audition, which means you’re going to make a small percentage of people happy with who you choose and all the other people who liked one of the other 13 are not going to be happy,” Thompson said. “And then on top of it, they then chose the inside guy.”
By placing an interim tag on Jennings and Bialik, Thompson said “Jeopardy!” producers have simply extended the already robust debate. You can expect the pro-Burton camp to campaign during this period, for instance. And there’s a whole world of possibilities out there.
“Essentially this is an insult that ‘OK, we need somebody to fill this hole through 2021 while we get our act together, and I guess you guys will do,'” Thompson said. “They are essentially saying, neither one of you are we secure enough to, in fact, after all of this give you the job. But we’ll give it to you till [the end of] 2021.
“I wish Norm Macdonald were still alive so he could get on his Burt Reynolds outfit and do a ‘Jeopardy!’ sketch for ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Even as the show returned to the air this week, the toxicity around Richards’ presence in his five recorded episodes continued to vex producers as fans reacted negatively.
But Nissley said any true fan of “Jeopardy!” would realize those shows must air.
“Anybody who loves the show was like, ‘Of course they have to do that,'” Nissley said. “They played those games. You can’t just throw those games in the trash and I think that was a reminder of what the game is really about. It’s about the contestants and it’s about the games that are played. And people actually care about the history and that this guy (Amodio) in particular is making some history.
“So there’s a kind of integrity to the game that wouldn’t be the case on any other game show, I don’t think. That speaks volumes to why people care about this funny little game show.”