The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What broke ‘Jeopardy!’

"Jeopardy!" executive producer Mike Richards. (Carol Kaelson/Via Reuters)

Arthur Chu won 11 games of “Jeopardy!” in 2014 and appeared in that year’s Tournament of Champions.

For more than 8,000 episodes, every weeknight just after dinner, families across the United States have sat down for their favorite TV comfort food. Each evening of “Jeopardy!” was always the same: Host Alex Trebek introduced the contestants, then a first round (interrupted halfway through by the players’ humanizing anecdotes), a second, and at last the Final Jeopardy tune that’s been the soundtrack for thinking since 1964.

The show’s soothing rhythm is so sacred that when I adopted an unorthodox strategy of frenetic hops about the board rather than a stately march down the selected category during my 11-game stint, I went viral as a “Jeopardy! villain.”

Some of the names people called me online stung, but in the end I couldn’t be mad; I’d been a fan since I was a child, too, and I knew how it felt to have something you love change unexpectedly. I figured the hate would fade, and I was happy to be part of “Jeopardy!” history so long as I could continue following the show as a fan.

Now, I’m struggling to keep watching. “Jeopardy!” is changing, and the show threatens to destroy its own appeal by abandoning the unvarying formula we’ve come to depend on and sidelining the people who most make it succeed.

It all started with the loss of Trebek. At my tapings, Trebek told us that if he were ever to retire, his one piece of advice to his successor would be, “Stay out of the way, and let the contestants be the stars.” (One of his go-to jokes was that his favorite color was “gray, like my personality.”) When Trebek died of pancreatic cancer in November of last year, most fans expected for a replacement already to have been named and, after a bit of welcoming fanfare, for the show to return to normal as soon as possible.

Instead, “Jeopardy!” trampled over Trebek’s directive. The hunt for the new host became a public circus of “on-the-job tryouts” featuring a glamorous roster of A-listers, and the star of the show became the week’s celebrity guest host. Each episode, their followers tuned in to root for them, not the actual contestants.

The disruption of rotating hosts was jarring enough for a show built on dependability, but the whole celebrity concept betrayed the secret of how “Jeopardy!” captivated us: the fantasy that you or I or anyone else could be the one in the spotlight. Anyone who’s good enough at trivia, even a schlubby nerd from Ohio, could get their turn to write the story of the show. During my streak, there was no question I was the main character, even if it was as the “villain.” Today, Matt Amodio is an 18-day champion and the third-winningest regular-season contestant in “Jeopardy!” history, but his story has taken a backseat to the drama on the host’s side of the stage.

Eventually, the ill-conceived host competition ended in an even more ill-conceived outcome: The news leaked that Mike Richards, the executive producer who had overseen the process, was planning on hiring himself as host. During the uproar from the fans over this, racist and misogynistic comments made in podcast appearances surfaced from Richards’s past, as did discrimination allegations levied against him at other game shows. When Richards was officially announced as the host, actor Mayim Bialik was hired as co-host as what seemed like a compromise; then Richards stepped down as host but was staying as producer; then the guest-host concept returned, with Bialik first up. Now, Bialik’s past questionable comments are coming to light.

This sort of churn is typical of the manipulative reality TV that clogs our airwaves now — the bait-and-switch, the opacity of the evaluation process, the ratings boost extracted from the fans of guest hosts who never really had a chance. That’s why it’s such a stain on the good name of a show we expect better from.

After the last year we’ve had — after the past five years we’ve had — is it too much to ask that just one beloved American institution not be sabotaged by shortsightedness and ego? In the world of television (and everything else), can we not have one safe space where the expectations stay consistent, everyone does their job and the little people get a chance to shine?

There can still be a place for “Jeopardy!,” so long as it centers on the contestants again, and on its own reliability. It just needs some help getting back there. So let me pass on what one child said to me back when I was playing the villain, a message that might be useful to Richards, or to interloping celebrities, or to anyone else who would steal the spotlight or shake up the show: “Why can’t you just do something else, and leave ‘Jeopardy!’ alone?”