Watching Alex Trebek’s Last ‘Jeopardy!’ as America Crumbles
The cruel twist of saying goodbye to the quizmaster who represented facts, dignity, stability, and decency for 37 years in a week where everything else in our lives went to hell.
On Friday evening, the last episode of Jeopardy! hosted by Alex Trebek airs. His final time will be his 8,260th turn as quizmaster, a role he’s taken from a TV gig to somewhat of a calling since his first outing in 1984. Before his death Nov. 8 at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, he spent 37 seasons as America’s favorite host and, by nature of the game show he was emceeing, its most trusted figure.
According to Jeopardy! executive producer Mike Richards, Trebek didn’t know that the taping of Friday’s episode would be his last. It was filmed 10 days before his death. The episode, then, will feel like a regular episode of the show as fans have known it 8,259 times before. As such, it will end the way it always has, with Trebek turning to the camera and saying “see you next time.” Just so you’re emotionally prepared...
Much has been made lately about how remarkable it is for a person and show to not only enjoy that long of a run and remain so beloved, but also for it to become, arguably, more popular than it’s ever been in recent years.
Some of that was owed to rule changes that allowed for astounding runs of record-breaking win totals from a handful of contestants that garnered the kind of fan thrills and captive attention reserved for an NBA team on a postseason run. Part of it was due to the devastating knowledge that there wasn’t much time left with Trebek. But a lot of it was the result of the world we live in now, and its opposition to the world that Jeopardy! represented.
At a time when “misinformation” and scandal rule everything—the news, primetime, our collective consciousness—here was a series about facts and stability. It was about certainty, and there was a comfort in that, especially in uncertain times. That might sound cutesy, but I promise you it’s been profound. Until I watched Trebek’s final episodes this week, I’m not sure it had struck me just how much so.
On Monday, the start of one of the most deeply upsetting news weeks in my lifetime—the pandemic continuing to escalate its tragic death tolls and the violent insurrection at the Capitol, two of the more shameful, darkest events in this country’s history—Trebek opened with a rare address to the audience.
He called for a “gentler, kinder society,” one that he knew we could build together if “we all just pitch in a little bit.” I’ve included most of the speech below, because it is striking to me that he had the divine wisdom to make it the moment he did, just before he passed, and airing when we need to hear it the most:
You recall that about a month ago, I asked you to take a moment to give thanks for all of the blessings that you enjoy in your lives. Now, today a different kind of message. This is the season of giving. I know you want to be generous with your family, your friends, your loved ones. But today, I’d like you to go one step further. I’d like you to open up your hands and open up your heart to those who are still suffering because of COVID-19—people who are suffering through no fault of their own. We’re trying to build a gentler, kinder society, and if we all pitch in just a little bit, we’re going to get there.
That speech matters to me because it’s a testament to just how much Trebek knew that his legacy isn’t just as a television personality.
He felt a responsibility for upholding the values of an entire world he helped build; where truth is unimpeachable, seriousness can be fun and silly, and, even in a game of intelligence, there was no such thing as elitism or ego. We were all invited into this world of comfort, of safety, of enjoyment, and, as he said in that message, of kindness. If people were going to look up to Trebek for wisdom and kindness, he was going to use the platform to make sure we care for each other.
I realized this week that I have been watching him host this show my entire life. It is quite possible that is literally true.
My parents were fans, and liked to keep it on after the news. I would watch with my grandparents as a kid. I’ve spoken about this before but, in New York, Jeopardy! airs on two different stations: one at 7 pm and one at 7:30 pm. My grandmother used to watch at 7 on one channel, and then again with my grandfather at 7:30 on another, stunning him by knowing all the answers. My brother and I would laugh hysterically.
It was on while I did homework before dinner. It was on when I came home for visits from college. It was on as I cooked dinner in my own apartment. In this last year of the pandemic, it was somewhat of a solace: after years of hustle and exhaustion in the city, there was now reason to stop and have a routine. We were stressed about the world around us, but every night at 7, we ate dinner and watched Jeopardy!
On Wednesday, like everyone, I was glued to the TV, mouth agape at what I was watching happen at the Capitol. It felt removed from the reality that I had once known. There’s not much to say about it: I was shocked, embarrassed, furious, devastated. Weren’t we all?
Then at 7 pm, when I needed to break for dinner and couldn’t take watching what was happening anymore, I turned on ABC. There, even on that horrible day, was Trebek hosting Jeopardy! It sounds so hokey to talk about how much comfort there was in being able to count on that, on him and that world being there. The stability meant something. It means something. It always will.
This year has been hard. It’s been hard to be anxious, angry, scared, and thinking about death all the time. My sanity has unraveled. My personal life has exploded. On Wednesday night, apparently not that long after that episode of Jeopardy! aired, my grandfather, who I mentioned earlier, passed away, about a year and a half after my grandmother. As I write this, my family is currently grappling with how to mourn him while all apart in a pandemic.
I’m used to being a very emotional person. I cry when people I love are hurt or upset. I cry at movies. I only half-joke that I once cried at a particularly poignant toilet paper commercial. But I used to also be happy a lot. I used to just feel things. What I hate about this year is that it has turned me into a sad person. I’m no longer “emotional.” I’m just sad, all the time.
I don’t like this about myself now, and I’m not enough of a narcissist to think I’m alone. I also can’t be alone in realizing this isn’t a “I’m here if you need to talk” feeling, one that can be lifted up by a “sending good vibes” platitude. There are too many people losing who they are, what they believed in, or what made them bright because of the incessant nature of the world’s bleakness.
There are never-ending trap doors opening below us, plummeting us to a new rock bottom. How is a person supposed to be a person—a good and hopeful person—when they can’t even trust that the floor is the floor?
It’s a lot to put “the only semblance left of normalcy, truth, and good” on the back of a syndicated game show and its beloved host. But we’re already seeing the ways in which nothing will be the same again. It doesn’t need to be said that it’s true of the world we live in, weathering a pandemic and facing the most grotesque affront to democracy in my lifetime. But it’s also true of that one little thing that was nice, that was stable. Of evenings spent with Trebek and Jeopardy!
It’s painful to feel like you’re losing your grip on that: on stability, certainty, or sanity, as you watch the madness of the world escalate around you. When you lose the thing you were holding onto, even just symbolically and even if you didn’t know you were, it makes you feel like you’re in free fall.
Will Jeopardy! be the same with a new host? I’d argue there is no way. And that’s what makes me sad.