The Delightful Decadence of Jeopardy

Sometimes, I watch Jeopardy!

I can’t stand Wheel of Fortune, it’s just hangman with a Playskool roulette wheel. As a little kid it was appealing because spinning the wheel just looked too cool and my lack of a vocabulary made the difficulty seem legit. But it’s not cool, it’s the Atlantic City to Jeopardy‘s NYC. It’s on right now. I should change it. Back to the point:

Jeopardy! is great. It is great because the name has no relationship with the content of the show aside from arcane diction. It is great because answering in the form of a question makes it seem like everybody on the show knows less than Alex Trebek. In fact, the entire thing is shamelessly geared to know-it-alls, a trait which I have to cop to as a fault. I guess all trivia is made that way, and this show could just as easily be called Trivial Pursuit (another reason it is great).

For years I didn’t watch. When I was about 10 I saw an episode with a kind, matronly lady as one of the contestants. She had watched the show for two decades and her excitement at actually being there, playing, was infectious. But she had a hard go of it. Towards the end of Double Jeopardy she had been stuck in place for a dozen questions, unable to buzz in ahead of her cynical, urbane competitors and their surgeon-like reflexes. At some point she had fallen below $0, and struggling to break into positive numbers, she managed to catch an answer. But when she successfully formed it into a question, it turned out to be wrong. When the board was clear, Alex reviewed the scores and informed this poor woman that because she had no money to wager, she would not participate in Final Jeopardy, and had to leave the stage.

She was heartbroken, and trying not to cry. Her face fought for dignity, to stunt frustration and humiliation and buttress her crumbling pride. But after twenty years of watching and imagining, now that she was here, on the set, she would not get to finish. She would never listen to that emblematic music as she wrote her answer onto a screen with that weird stylus from the grocery check-out line. She was going home a consummate Jeopardy! failure.

The injury to her dreams that this represented was entirely outsize in my pre-pubescent imagination. I was so upset for her that I did not watch the show again until college. Frankly I wasn’t watching television at 7pm in college either, but I did one summer, and it was good.

Fully grown, I see now that Trebek sells the entire thing. He seems quietly bored most of the time, and when he gives contestants bad news his concern seems more disinterested than sincere. He only gets a real fire in his belly when the game is really close or somebody starts running up the score. I realized all this tonight when I tuned in and Alex was goading the guy with $32,000 to bet all his money just to keep the game interesting. It reminded me of nothing more than hedonism-bot from Futurama.

Now look, I’m not saying that my childhood memories wouldn’t be more traumatic if Alex Trebek were reclining on a sofa, being fanned and fed grapes. I’m just saying he should probably start doing it now.

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