On the latest installment of Celebrity Jeopardy!, host Mayim Bialik was interviewing that night’s contestants when a potentially awkward topic came up: Actor Ike Barinholtz is a huge fan of the other current Jeopardy! host, Ken Jennings. Barinholtz quickly elaborated that he loved watching Jennings as a Jeopardy! superchampion. As far as Bialik and Jennings as hosts, he said, “You are both my children!”
Jennings actually appeared later in the episode, sort of, providing pre-recorded clues in a category about shows and actors who, like him as a Jeopardy! contestant, had long runs.
It was, in other words, an attempt to celebrate the new Jeopardy! normal, where Jennings and Bialik take turns hosting the original show, while Bialik is behind the lectern for primetime special events like Celebrity Jeopardy!
And for the moment, the arrangement seems to be working very well, especially after the catastrophe that the venerable game show briefly became after the passing of the legendary Alex Trebek.
Rather than set up a new host to fail by having them directly succeed Trebek, the show devoted an entire season to guest hosts. Some, like Jennings, Bialik, and LeVar Burton, were genuinely auditioning for the ongoing job. Others, like, Robin Roberts or Joe Buck, were doing it as a something to cross off their bucket lists before returning to their day jobs. And in the end, relatively new Jeopardy! executive producer Mike Richards chose… Mike Richards. The decision — the biggest inside fix since Dick Cheney chose himself to be vice-president when George W. Bush asked him for help picking a running mate — left a bad taste in the mouths of fans who believed a genuinely open audition had been going on. And things got worse when Jeopardy! expert and The Ringer writer Claire McNear began reporting on various unsavory incidents in Richards’ history producing various game shows. After a single day of filming, Richards was out as host, and off the show altogether soon after, and soon Jennings and Bialik were splitting the on-camera job.
As Jeopardy! went back and forth between them last season, Bialik was introduced by announcer Johnny Gilbert as “the host of Jeopardy!” while Jennings was simply “hosting Jeopardy!” This seemed to reflect reports at the time that Sony TV executives preferred to give the gig to Bialik full-time, but the scheduling demands of her Fox sitcom Call Me Kat made this impossible. For this season, the temporary arrangement has been made permanent, and now Jennings has an extra spring in his step when he also walks on stage to the sound of Gilbert calling him “the host of Jeopardy!“
Jennings and Bialik are very competitive people, and during the audition period two seasons ago, both made it clear that they wanted the full-time job. It’s possible they still feel this way, and would rather their colleague was not around. But they are saying the right things: When Barinholtz mentioned being a Jennings fan, Bialik said, “As we all are.” And the expansion of Jeopardy! from a single nightly show into a franchise with multiple spinoffs in the works means that the job is now arguably too big for either of them, even if Call Me Kat weren’t a factor.
As hosts, the two offer different flavors. As a former champ — the defining player of the modern era when the show dropped the five-episode limit on contestants — Jennings can’t help seeing the game as an insider. He loves analyzing strategy as it’s happening and is clearly excited whenever he spots a budding super-champ among the latest group. He doesn’t exactly attempt to interfere with the game itself, but he does make it clear that he enjoys bold play, and you periodically get the sense that someone has made a big Daily Double wager specifically to please him. Mostly, though, he comes across as genial, quick-witted, and delighted to continue being in the company of such brain power, like the moment last week where he was so impressed that current champ Chris Pannullo knew the name of anatomist Andreas Vesalius.
Bialik comes across as equally happy to be there, and if she doesn’t have as broad a base of trivia knowledge, she’s plenty brilliant herself, with a doctorate in neuroscience. But she approaches her role as host differently, with her polished screen presence from her acting work(*) complementing her palpable Jeopardy! fandom. She can be more playful, teasing the contestants when none of them buzzes in on a particular clue(**). And she fits especially well into the Celebrity Jeopardy! format, not only because she’s a famous working actor herself, but because the vibe is much looser and sillier.
(*) One exception: Her contestant interview segments can seem a bit scripted at times, where Jennings interviews play as more genuine conversations with the contestants.
(**) These moments dance on a knife’s edge between humor and smugness. Bialik is smart, but like Trebek and Jennings, she has all the answers on the card in front of her. And occasionally she will betray her own lack of knowledge on a subject, like not knowing in last week’s Celebrity Jeopardy! that “Tour Eiffel” is the French name for the Eiffel Tower. Most of the time, though, the ribbing of the contestants comes across as gentle and fun.
The latest celebrity episode was a particular roller coaster. In certain moments, Barinholtz’s competitors seemed determined to turn it into a real-life version of the SNL sketches. Jalen Rose kept giving responses that were parts of the clues, like when he was supposed to name a state in New England and simply said, “New England.” And while reading her incomplete Final Jeopardy response, Constance Wu made like Norm McDonald-as-Burt Reynolds and pronounced “Titanic” as if the first syllable was a crude term for a part of the female anatomy. But Barinholtz turned in the celebrity equivalent of a dominant, Jennings-esque performance, only to be nearly caught in the new Triple Jeopardy segment when Wu twice bet everything she had on Daily Doubles. (Ironically, Barinholtz’s hero would have approved of Wu’s strategy more than Barinholtz’s, since his own Double Jeopardy bets were fairly conservative despite his clear command of the questions.)
Michael Davies, who replaced Mike Richards as the show’s executive producer, continues working on new wrinkles for the familiar format, like an upcoming Second Chance Tournament for contestants who fell short of winning despite valiant efforts. There is a risk of diluting the brand of what was, until Trebek’s death, one of the more durable and reassuringly simple ideas in all of television. But Davies (who also brought Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to America) seems to understand the show’s appeal in ways that eluded Richards. Putting many of these spinoffs into network primetime is a win-win: ABC gets a beloved property as part of its schedule, while the syndicated main show remains largely untouched. Having two hosts — even two who have seemed as good at the job as Bialik and Jennings — is enough change to Original Recipe Jeopardy! for quite some time.
In the Celebrity Jeopardy! season premiere, Shang-Chi star Simu Liu said, “I feel like there’s no game show that exposes stupidity like Jeopardy!” Fortunately, smart decisions are being made lately around there.