It could’ve all been so simple, but the folks over at ABC just had to make it hard.
Earlier this week, The Daily Beast reported that after an extended competition featuring possible guests such as Katie Couric, Aaron Rodgers, LeVar Burton, and Robin Roberts, to name a few, Jeopardy! hosting duties would be carried out by longtime executive producer Mike Richards and former Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik, who’d host Jeopardy! spin-off competitions. In the case of Richards, ABC publicly did what many companies do privately: call for diverse applicants while already having an insider primed for the desired role. For Bialik, she was a part of the competitive action whose selection could easily be spun as a diversity hire if we didn’t know all that we do about how diversity and inclusion policies have historically privileged white women (or perhaps to provide cover for Richards, in light of the resurfaced sexism allegations). Regardless, the circus ABC decided to prop up around what ended up being a rather vanilla selection only made them look worse.
ABC could’ve easily chosen the route most often traveled without all the fanfare, but they instead opened the door of representative possibility: what would it look like for an endearing Black woman, a well-read Black man, or even its most successful contestant to helm America’s foremost intellect-based game show? Burton, in particular, fielded a rapturous response to his candidacy, boasting a powerful bond with Gen X and millennial viewers who remembered him from the trailblazing Reading Rainbow of the '80s and '90s and his ongoing Levar Burton Reads podcast. “I’m trying to keep them,” he told The Daily Beast in April, “this generation, engaged with their imaginations.” Dangling the more imaginative version of Jeopardy! in front of that generation of viewers after Alex Trebek’s sparkling 30-year run adds salt to a deep wound.
And what a twofer they chose. Richards’ leadership, as previously reported by The Daily Beast and elsewhere, has been called into question dating back to 2010 when models at his last gig, The Price is Right, alleged harassment and discrimination after they were either fired or marginalized for becoming pregnant. Richards denied the allegations, and as cases failed to meet the statute of limitations, he got off scot-free. Given that she was a relative outsider, Bialik’s red flags might be even more alarming. From promoting anti-vaccine literature in her own writing, where in one breath she wrote that she doesn’t want to “dismiss” the families who’ve endured horrible tragedies due to being unvaccinated, but in the next defended her anti-vax stance by sharing that a “friend’s brother had an adverse reaction to a vaccination and he is never going to develop mentally past the age of 6 because of it,” seems really tacky and insensitive and wrong (even if true). She conveniently pivoted to admitting that she and her sons are vaccinated more recently, just in time for her Jeopardy! audition.
Then there was her victim-blaming New York Times op-ed about Harvey Weinstein, concluding that she was never a “perfect ten” and therefore wouldn’t be subject to his kind of predation. While self-identifying as a feminist, in a piece written just days after the Times broke the news of Weinstein’s violent and predatory behavior, she wrote, “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” She would pivot, once again (sensing a pattern here?), to dismissing the claims of her victim-blaming on “vicious people,” saying that readers took her “words out of the context of the Hollywood machine and twisted them to imply that God forbid [she] would blame a woman for her assault based on clothing and behavior.”
Speaking of gods and shady behavior, Bialik loudly proclaimed her donation toward bulletproof vests for the Israeli Defense Forces back in 2014 just out of “a need to do something.” Human Rights Watch released a report in April 2021 stating that what Israel and the IDF are doing against Palestinians “amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
After facing backlash, Bialik quieted for a time until May of this year, where she self-identified as a “liberal Zionist” who, like many other celebrities, spouted bothsidesism: “Israel deserves to live as an autonomous free and safe nation,” she told Fox News. “The Palestinian people deserve the same. What is happening now by extremists on both sides is tragic. It’s horrendous. It’s unacceptable. And I have to hold out hope that peace and justice will prevail.”
And listen, no one is confusing Jeopardy! with some left-leaning trivial pursuit. It’s very clear—whether through category choices or the awkward silences from contestants on answers about non-white, non-straight history and culture—that this isn’t a game show necessarily geared for non-traditionalism (they had the same host for more than 30 years for a reason). But what the last few months have represented for the game show was an opportunity to do something different; to expand their audience’s perceptions of what is considered usable knowledge or fun trivia from people with a background that is categorically different from the audience. Instead, they got the hopes up of thousands of folks who aren’t traditional and then made it plain that they couldn’t care less about those viewers. A Big Bang, indeed.
This story has been updated to replace the word genocidal in reference to the IDF.