The Enduring Value of “Jeopardy!” in the Anti-Intellectual Epoch

Simon Jaronski | staff columnist

Nov. 18, 2021

On Nov. 8, 2020, a little over one year ago, America lost one of its most beloved national icons. The Canadian-American Alex Trebek, who hosted “Jeopardy!” for a whopping 37 seasons, had become a ubiquitous presence in many households, including mine. 

When Trebek died from cancer at the age of 80, I was shocked and saddened, and also deeply disconcerted. Indeed, Trebek and the show have become a mooring point in many of our lives — something we can always return to on our respective quests for personal fulfillment.

Unfortunately, we live in a time of profound hostility toward intellectual culture. Much too often, intellectualism has been conflated with snobbish elitism, or relegated to the milieu of the New Yorker – reading, $7 ethically sourced coffee-sipping types. 

Even worse, many identify it as a feature of the vanguard of some malicious contingent of cultural warriors hellbent on redefining Americanism in line with their un-inclusive vision of inclusivity.

Merv Griffin’s “Jeopardy!,” which aired in its current form in 1984, simultaneously engages and moderates both of these polar phenomena, capturing the best of both. This may seem to be an audacious claim, but bear with me.

On the one hand, the show extolls and celebrates the virtues and merits of an intellectually oriented lifestyle: a hearty accumulation of trivial facts is an unequivocal plus, even if it does not portend economic success outside of the show. For many, this translates to a critical-analytical disposition; a perpetually imaginative and inquisitive sensibility, so to speak.

For example, contestant Austin Rogers, a bartender who amassed $411,000 during his memorable 12-day run (nothing against those who dabble in the venerable art of mixology); or, even more strikingly, sports-gambler James Holzhauer, who shocked the show’s community with his 32-day winning streak and unprecedented ability to amass large sums of money through domination of the gameboard. The official “GOAT,” Ken Jennings, recent champ Matt Amodio and countless others have provided the heavyweight intellectual character to the show that makes it so utterly enthralling to watch. 

However, “Jeopardy!” is fundamentally non-elitist.

It is a show which celebrates intellectual achievement, grand or banal, like no other. It stands out in a sea of kitschy game show histrionics, operating with the force of tradition and the undying love of audiences behind it. 

No viewer of “Wheel of Fortune” was ever compelled to pick up a book after watching three bronzed contestants fight for a Caribbean cruise, or after seeing someone correctly guess the price of an exercise bike — courtesy of “The Price is Right”— in a perverse paean to consumerism.

And it is precisely this historic impartiality which makes the recent political squabbles that consumed the show so unfortunate. The death of Trebek, who in so many ways was the ‘institutional’ embodiment of the program, drew its viability into question. 

With his dignified and stately comportment, Trebek personally exemplified the show’s core message: that the sharing of and in knowledge should be a populist venture. 

By immediately lusting after a smorgasbord of celebrity personalities to buoy the show without its longtime captain at the helm, the producers (among them the notorious Mike Richards) only undermined its core principle. 

For as much as Trebek’s inimitable hosting skills became synonymous with the show, “Jeopardy!” was only ever about the contestants, for all their wholesome quirkiness and inspiring talent.

On another note, the year since Trebek passed has been incredibly fraught. 

On Jan. 6, the pervasive undercurrent of illiberal discontent reached its sordid apotheosis; thousands of cognitively isolated Americans sought to rebel against the foundations of democratic rule. The healthy functioning of a republican government demands that citizens maintain an enlightened point of view: a natural skepticism of accumulated political power mixed with a willingness to cede and delegate individual sovereignty in the face of democratic impracticality. 

An alienation from this sense of enlightenment — which is by no means inaccessible — is an alienation from the same broader culture of learning, which reflects a belief that the expansion of one’s own horizons is an ipso facto good.

I am not suggesting that the unfortunate passing of syndicated television’s most iconic figure is even loosely correlated with novel insurrectionist sentiment in America and elsewhere. Instead, I seek to advocate for the utility and desirability of a thoroughgoing, yet highly accessible, form of intellectualism in the interest of national cohesion. In light of this goal, Jeopardy’s worth becomes apparent.

The enduringly valuable Jeopardy! is merely one parcel in a greater scheme of reunification — a venerated staple of American culture which can simultaneously serve as a consolidating agent in an era of fracture and dissonance. Its proper object as a collective interface — the effectuation of pride in knowledge everywhere — should begin within the family unit, and continue to flourish within every form of community. And to boot, the show’s neutrality sidesteps the ideological pretensions of any partisan.

As the great political theorist and traditionalist conservative icon Russell Kirk once opined: “Had not the New England farmer who read good books as much a right to be considered an intellectual being as any coffee-house Bohemian?” 

We would do well to re-examine the role of the ‘commoner-intellectual’ in society. The legacy of Alex Trebek urges us to do so.