The Last Normal Thing

A requiem for Alex Trebek's Jeopardy!, one thing we could always count on.

This past weekend was a surreal moment to cap an unbelievable year. 

I’ll resist the urge to say much about the election and its drawn-out ending, given how exhausted we all have to be with it, but on Saturday we were treated to a spectacle that truly suited the strange times we live in.

A new President-elect was introduced to the American people before a scattering of cars honking their horns in a parking lot. Huge crowds celebrated in the streets around the world, while smaller crowds screamed bloody murder outside boards of election about injustices they had no evidence of but utter faith in. And all of this happened mere hours after the incumbent’s comically-motley legal team declared their resolve to dig in their heels, fight on, and never concede… while standing outside a mulch store next to a pornography shop and a funeral home.

Nothing really has to make sense anymore, but we’ve gotten pretty used to that.

That’s part of what makes this weekend’s other big news—inevitable and long-expected, but no less tragic for its lack of surprise—sting all the more. 

Alex Trebek, the beloved and iconic longtime host of Jeopardy!, passed away Sunday at the age of 80, following a well-publicized struggle with pancreatic cancer. There has been and will be no shortage of eulogies, remembrances and retrospectives on Trebek’s life and work over the days and weeks to come, most of those will be written by people far more equipped to write them than I, a person with no special connection or unique insight on the matter. I know that no small number of people reading this today have, in fact, themselves been contestants on the show over the 37 seasons and over 8,200 episodes of the venerable quiz show hosted by Trebek. They could tell you more about the man, more about his life and more about the inner workings of the show he made legendary.

I can’t offer that.

I can only share what Jeopardy! meant to me.

The show, in its most well-known, Trebek-helmed incarnation, has effectively been the same for my entire life. The host’s suits or hairstyle might’ve changed, but the format never did. The tone, the feel never changed. Where most shows from 1984 now look laughably dated to a present-day viewer—especially game shows of the era—and most present-day entertainment offerings would likely overwhelm a viewer from back then with their intensity, pacing and over-the-top production, Jeopardy!, at its essence, never changed. It was always just there. It was always more or less the same, and the simple, perfect format ensured that it would always be worth one’s time in watching.

There’s no condescension or pandering to the viewer in Jeopardy!, no rewarding dumb luck. Forever paired on evening syndication schedules with its lowbrow companion Wheel of Fortune, it has served as an aspirational contrast: any idiot might be able to spin a big wheel, but you’ve got to know things to get behind those podiums. The show is almost brutal in its meritocracy; if you’re smart and quick with a buzzer, you could be on it. You’d almost certainly be put up against someone smarter and quicker than you, though, and end up being reminded of how much there is that you don’t know. 

The questions are always fresh, always difficult, but always covering a wide enough breadth of knowledge that no one contestant could be expected to know everything, and conversely virtually anyone could, for a moment, feel like the smartest person in the room when shouting an answer at the television that the eggheads on your screen don’t know. (God bless the sports categories, and the look of terror on the face of any tenured professor of 17th-century Russian literature when they’re faced with the prospect of questioning an answer about Ken Griffey Jr. or Peyton Manning.)

I’ve always dreamed of being on the show myself, but I never pursued it hard enough. I’d forget when the online tests were being held, or have a scheduling conflict and resolve to myself that I’d get around to it next time. Quietly, I’d wonder if I was actually smart enough to be on the show, something that I’d probably rather not find out the answer to. But there would always be time. There would always be Jeopardy!

There would always be three deserving contestants facing down the same unforgiving challenge, and there would always be the same host at the center. There would always be the dream of offering Alex a few cherry-picked biographical details about yourself, and having him react with his perfect mix of understated humor and convivial condescension, a tone rooted in the respect he clearly had for everyone who made it onto his show. In the hours since the news of his passing broke, my social media filled with images taken by Trebek’s side—apparently a lot of my friends are nerds—the ultimate souvenir of having made it to a destination that would always be difficult to get to but never impossible.

I’m shifting back and forth between present tense and past tense here, and that’s an intentional choice that goes beyond my laziness about editing my own work. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what it would look like if I turned on the television to watch an episode of Jeopardy!. I can’t resolve what the show would even be without Alex Trebek at its center. It will continue—that much is clear, but nothing else is.

There’s been plenty of speculation ever since Trebek’s illness was first made public about who might take over his podium, whether it be former champion Ken Jennings or someone from elsewhere in the world of television. Whoever it is, I have full confidence that the show will be put in good hands; far too many people love it dearly for it to be tinkered with or let to fall to the waste bin of history.

When the time does come that someone else takes up that mantle, though, it will be evident that something has changed, irreversibly.

We will have finally lost the last normal thing, and we will be lesser for it. 

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)