Why Jeopardy! needs LeVar Burton, from a longtime fan

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on August 22, 2021

There’s been a power vacuum since November 2020.

No, I’m not talking about a vacuum in Washington, DC, I’m talking about Los Angeles on the set of one of the most important shows in American history: Jeopardy! Well, at least it’s important to me and thousands of others around the world.

I’ve been a Jeopardy! fan since I was a little kid when my Mom and I would watch together. We’re big trivia fans in my house and Jeopardy! was the perfect arena to test our skills. It was fast, challenging, and gave everyone in the house a fighting chance depending on the category.

Everyone except your humble Newscow reporter, Tracy McCue that is, who has yet to best me in a single round of the show.

Jeopardy!’s longtime host, Alex Trebek, died from complications due to pancreatic cancer last November, and the show has been predictably unsure how to replace him. Despite being an arrogant (fake) know-it-all, Trebek seemed to have a cult following, so filling his loafers is no small challenge.

Sony started a search for a permanent host immediately and the latest season was filmed with a cattle car of temporary fill-ins. Some were decent like Ken Jennings and Savannah Guthrie, while others were mediocre like Aaron Rogers and Mike Richards, but overall, the show ran smoothly.

The final name on that list, Mike Richards, chose to gum up the works.

He’s the new executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune and decided to throw his own name into the running for the host. A dubious (at best) practice that called the whole search into question before Sony decided he was the man for the permanent gig.

Richards has since been outed for making truly offensive statements about women and Jewish people, as well as a litany of sketchy business practices in his career as a producer. For more information on his escapades, check out Claire McNear’s excellent reporting on the scandals on the Ringer.

But this story isn’t about Mike Richards. This is about another guest host that took the public by storm recently: LeVar Burton.

LeVar Burton is a lifelong fan of Jeopardy! and has made his desire to host abundantly clear. He finally got his chance a few weeks ago but received lackluster ratings. Many have argued that he never had a fair shot because Mike Richards only gave Burton one week on the job, compared to two for every other guest host, and had his episodes compete with the opening week of the Olympics.

Despite all those setbacks, however, LeVar shined.

Personally, I think Savannah Guthrie has done the best job of any guest host so far, this season, but LeVar is a strong second. He had the trivia chops to keep the game rolling, as well as some genuine humor to keep it light.

The hosting gig isn’t a terribly complicated role and is supposed to fade into the background of the gameplay. If you have an overly ostentatious host at the helm, their jokes and demeanor can take away from the game.

Every gameshow on TV seems overly concerned with production and making things as big and loud as can be. Jeopardy!, on the other hand, knows it has the perfect setup so it lets the show speak for itself without any added antics.

LeVar knew that well and expertly piloted the show through a five-episode run as host.

But it’s not just his acumen behind the podium that qualifies him for the job; it’s his following. Millions of people around the country know Burton as the Reading Rainbow guy. He’d visit us at grade school through a television set to teach us the joys of reading, and for many of us, it worked.

It’s that kind of built-in scholarly credibility that maintains the air of mystique for a Jeopardy! host. Alex always played the role as if he could waltz down to contestant podiums and run the board if he wanted to. That feat seems far less impressive when you remember he’s rehearsed every answer so maybe we should’ve saved some of that judgment.

LeVar already has that credibility, however, with none of the pomposity. When he’s reading the questions, it feels like a grade school teacher giving a quiz.

It’s not just me and other lifelong fans of the show that think this either. LeVar had an overwhelming wave of support from the Internet at large. I saw people who never cared about Jeopardy! suddenly tuning in to watch, for maybe the first time.

Jeopardy! used to be just a nerdy quiz show that only I and thousands of old people cared about, but suddenly everyone was in on it. And the best thing about that new wave of support? It was diverse.

Jeopardy! has always had a White problem. One only needs to look at the question categories and the demographic breakdown of contestants. That doesn’t mean people of color and non-men contestants aren’t successful on the show. Far from it, but it does seem like an anomaly.

Categories have a tendency of focusing on European and Anglo-American history and culture. When the clues do happen to skew towards other geographic and demographic sects of people, the results are laughably inadequate.

The most popular instances of this are categories devoted to African geography or African American culture. It usually falls to one person who knows a few capital cities on the second largest continent on Earth or even listened to a few rap songs.

But with a Black host at the helm and an opportunity to hire more diverse clue-writers, Jeopardy! finally has a chance to evolve.

One of my favorite aspects of the show is to learn things as the clues go on. Am I an expert on African geography or East-Asian culture? Of course, I’m not, but I would sure like to build my knowledge on both.

And once the people behind the scenes start to accommodate a diverse set of knowledge, a diverse set of contestants and viewers will follow. We don’t need another category of “Top White Dudes to Make History.” We need new categories and questions that I don’t even know to look for.

The best way to start? Hire LeVar Burton and get a new generation of fans to tell the show what they’re looking for.

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