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On the bright side, the next host of Jeopardy! need only live up to the standard set by Mike Richards.
It will be seen as the needless elevation of a mediocre white man with limited credentials at the culmination of what felt like a public selection process, even though the public was misguided if we felt we’d ever been promised a say. It will be seen as a strangely nepotistic hire, in which the executive producers of Jeopardy! hired one of their own (leaving aside indications that producer Sony really had the final say). It will be seen as the latest instance of a high-profile job going to somebody who hadn’t faced thorough googling, much less actual due diligence.
Sure. Absolutely. All of that.
But will it be seen as an instance of nefarious genius?
Maybe I’ve watched too many James Bond movies, but if you put Auric Goldfinger or Dr. No in charge of the Jeopardy! hosting selection process, they would be wicked and evil enough to understand that anybody replacing Alex Trebek would have faced immediate and intense scrutiny. The replacement would have been on the firing line for their on-camera job performance and for the fickle whims of Nielsen ratings. It would have been an inevitable disappointment that would have stuck to even the best-intentioned of replacements.
So why set up the best-intentioned of replacements for that debacle?
The James Bond supervillains at Jeopardy! decided — this is a thing my imaginary brilliant, evil Jeopardy! producers decided and should not be inferred to be a thing actually decided by actual Jeopardy! producers — to set up a series of buffers insulating the real new host against at least a modicum of the Trebek replacement pressure he or she would have experienced. The extended series of guest hosts was the primary buffer, months of varied candidates or contenders who were never really intended to be candidates or contenders. Dr. Oz was never going to be the host of Jeopardy!, but he gave Rational Science Twitter something to rend garments over. Aaron Rogers and Joe Buck both have lucrative day jobs and were probably never going to be the next host of Jeopardy!, but they gave Sports Twitter something to get worked up over.
Fans and perhaps especially nonfans got so invested in this thing that had a surface resemblance to a search process that nobody considered that we’d never been told this was the search process. It was just a series of guest hosts. But whoever was announced as the winner of that non-search would have, again, faced something between irritation and anger online, so why subject an actual audience favorite to that response? Even LeVar Burton, patron saint of literacy, has encountered the most gentle of, “Well, his guest-hosting run wasn’t actually all that good,” backlash in some circles. It was a lose-lose situation, so why not throw somebody ridiculous out there as the choice, let them reap the whirlwind, and then hope that said whirlwind blows itself out eventually?
Honestly, why else would you float Mike Richards’ name as the final choice at all?
And then, before Richards was official but after the revelation of Richards’ role in harassment and discrimination lawsuits, why would you still formally announce him as the new host a full week later?
And then, after he had been formally announced as the new Jeopardy! host but after various dumbass things Richards said on a negligible podcast came to light, why would you let him begin production as host?
At every step of the process, logic or common sense would seem to have dictated that somebody could have gone to Mike Richards and said, “So, um, is anything else likely to come out that we should know about?” Either that conversation never happened, indicating a level of negligence that makes no sense to me, or that conversation definitely happened and all involved parties thought they would ride this out on the back of daily half-apologies or that Richards would eventually need to step down, just not … immediately.
Either this was a process blundered at every turn, or Mike Richards was a sacrificial bland.
He was a mediocre choice as replacement for Alex Trebek, and he was a mediocre choice as token villain. Selecting somebody with Richards’ background of ambitious ickiness was an affront to Alex Trebek’s legacy of fundamental decency, but I’m still more offended by what Dr. Oz’s guest run did to the show’s legacy of intellectual honesty. There were much worse choices, they just wouldn’t have been believable. Whatever your thoughts were on the initial Richards pick, it absolutely felt like the sort of pick Hollywood would make.
As unappealing as the details around the discrimination lawsuit were, and as woefully unfunny as Richards’ podcast jokes were — and he can’t even use that tried and true, “I’m a comedian and comedians have to be allowed to be offensive!” justification — they were already a part of Richards’ professional résumé, and he could have gone on as Jeopardy! executive producer in perpetuity without those things ever bringing him down. Instead, Jeopardy! has said that Richards will continue as executive producer — at least as of the moment I’m writing this — meaning that they’re making the weird statement that his past makes him too much of a distraction for an on-air role, but exactly the appropriate amount of distraction to continue in a job where he has responsibilities and oversight related to countless employees.
Not only am I not sure how long that could possibly continue, but there are countless relatively anonymous producers across Hollywood who probably know that if Richards’ situation is about to define the new standard for decency in Hollywood, in terms of what is and what isn’t acceptable, they’re going to be in trouble as well.
If the producers of Jeopardy! were aware — and of course they were — that the search for Alex Trebek’s successor was doomed to over-scrutiny and inevitable fan disappointment, I’m not sure they could have done a more successful job of distracting and deflecting. Could they have done a better job? Clearly. But more successful? We’re barely talking about Alex Trebek and his long shadow anymore. The next round of guest hosts will be compared not to Trebek but to Richards and to the first round of guest hosts. If you made a graph and Trebek was your only point of data, there was only room to fall below. Now there’s a low data point as well, and there’s almost endless room in the middle, offering chances to casually satisfy the show’s fan base without provoking ecstasy or horror.
No longer does the classified ad need read, “Must Replace Most Beloved Canadian in History.”
Instead, it’s something closer to “For Sale: Jeopardy! Replacement Host Shoes. Barely Worn.”
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