The new Jeopardy! hosts are disappointing. Why didn’t they choose LeVar Burton?
Jeopardy! may have made the world’s worst hosting choice since OJ Simpson was given his own prank show in 2006. Even before the death of the legendary host Alex Trebek, the public, including Trebek himself, was in deep debate over his potential heir. Following Trebek’s passing, the show moved through a number of other temporary guest hosts. Only three people of color were brought on as hosts, including the former Reading Rainbow host and Star Trek actor LeVar Burton, and in the end they decided to go with not one but two white hosts, one with questionable skill and both with questionable histories. The show not only failed by depriving itself of a wonderful host, but deprived the world of a host that represents everything that it so sorely needs right now.
Jeopardy! was born in the midst of a series of scandals that plagued quiz shows in the 1950s. Previous quiz shows were accused of being rigged, and many of these accusations had some truth to them. Jeopardy’s creator, Merv Griffin, added the Jeopardy! trademark of answers being asked as questions as a layer of complexity that made it clearer that the contestants were developing their own answers instead of being fed answers by producers. The show was cancelled twice before being reborn with a new host, Alex Trebek, in 1983. The Canadian American host would go on to receive eight Emmys, including a posthumous one earlier this year.
With Alex Trebek’s passing in November 2020, producers planned a slate of guest hosts to take the helm beginning the following January. The show began with Ken Jennings, a prolific former contestant, and followed with a long list of hosts including: Sanjay Gupta, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, Dr Oz and the football star Aaron Rodgers. The list was remarkably white and even lacked one of Alex Trebek’s preferred replacements, Laura Coates, a CNN legal analyst who would have been the list’s second Black woman or woman of color. LeVar Burton may not have even been in the original running, but according to Burton’s spokesperson, a 200,000-person petition effort pushed him into consideration by Jeopardy! hosts. Many fans believed that he was the perfect fit to replace Alex Trebek and that his history as an actor and TV host made him a perfect fit for the next generations of Jeopardy! viewers.
LeVar Burton is an embodiment of the zeitgeist. He represents the growing popularity of science fiction and Afrofuturism – a tradition of bringing Black people and Black culture into the science fiction genre – with his role as Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge in the hit show Star Trek: The Next Generation. His history as host of Reading Rainbow gives him authority as a figure that helped develop the reading habits of one of the most well-read generations in the United States. And his role in the African American epic Roots helped expand the political consciousness of Americans through its depiction of the century-long journey of a Black family from west Africa, through American slavery, and the American civil war.
In an age when former Black legends like Bill Cosby and the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, have been revealed as predators, it is important to have positive images of Black men who display the kind of tenderness and brilliance that Burton has shown throughout his career and personal life. Burton has also displayed the ferocity against injustice shared by many young Americans, tweeting – in the midst of the George Floyd uprising – “Do not f*ck with me today, people. Today is not the day!”
Given his grassroots support and all that he represents, it is a shame that Jeopardy! decided to go with less impressive and significantly more controversial hosts. Part of Trebek’s charm was his uncontroversial but grounded nature. He was beloved by all. Mike Richards, an executive producer for the show – which does at least appear to create a bias – was chosen as the main host, and carries a kind of baggage at odds with the show’s legacy. In a lawsuit dating back to when he worked at The Price is Right, he was accused of mistreating female employees. (He denies wrongdoing.)
The show’s other chosen host also brings a bit of a messy history to the show. Mayim Bialik, is a neuroscientist and actress best known for her role on the popular television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. She’s well credentialed and made for a great host during her time running Jeopardy!, but she’s also a meme in the anti-vax community for a 2009 interview in which she stated that her family was a “non-vaccinating family”.
Though she walked the statement back in 2015, she weakened her stance by telling parents to do their own research on the topic. She also received some flak for her public role with a controversial brain health supplement company that has been accused of providing misleading claims about being backed by clinical studies. And lastly, she received a lot of criticism for her 2017 article on feminism in which she implied that dressing modestly was a realistic way to decrease the likelihood of being harassed or assaulted in Hollywood. She did clarify that she did not blame women for this but it was not enough for those that saw her words as doing exactly that.
Though there will be no perfect host to replace Trebek, it is clear that we could have gotten a host that better reflects the needs of today and some of what made Trebek great. The show should have given more people of color a chance to shine from the onset, and if there was a standout white host, it was Ken Jennings, the longest reigning Jeopardy! champion who brought his own brand of charm and knowledge to the stage. Regardless, Alex Trebek was a legend of a man who leaves behind the shoes of a giant that may very well have been impossible to fill.
Akin Olla is a contributing opinion writer at the Guardian