It’s kind of amazing that Jeopardy! still makes news. Maybe someone is in the middle of a 70-game winning streak, or a robot is playing, or someone is making an insane amount of money on the show. Somehow, you can still become a minor celebrity on Jeopardy! On Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time, three contestants are competing in a seven-night gauntlet. Three nights in, and it’s one of my favorite TV shows right now.
Jeopardy! is fun to watch because it’s a game show you feel like you can play and win. And maybe you could! As a combination of trivia, gambling, and reflexes, it’s the perfect combination of things no one can truly be the best at — just the best in a given room. It’s also easy to overestimate your performance: trivia always feels easy because when you know an answer, you know. This also makes it easy to overestimate your own performance.
A game of Jeopardy! has 30 clues on a board, with two boards per game plus Final Jeopardy. The game moves fast to fit all that trivia in twenty-odd minutes. I imagine that most people are like myself and think that they rock at Jeopardy! before they do the math and realize that they would also have to clean up the architecture category as easily as they did the movie one, and commit to being a more humble fan. Or maybe you can do those things. Applying to be a contestant is pretty easy, even if making it on the show is not.
Jeopardy!, in its most dramatic moments, features human beings that behave just like anime characters — emphatically mashing buzzers, exaggerating their most pensive facial expressions, and generally doing everything they can to keep their emotions in check, lest Alex Trebek notice how badly they want his approval. It’s the Olympics of restraint, which makes the occasional glimpses of contestants’ personalities or Alex’s withering wit incredibly fun to watch.
This is also the reason why The Greatest of All Time is Jeopardy! at its finest. It’s not because of the high skill level at which the contestants are playing, although that’s definitely there for those who appreciate it. It’s because this is the rare circumstance where the same three contestants — each with their own lengthy history on the show — keep coming back to compete against one another. There’s a simple-but-great narrative at play if you want one.
Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the longest winning streak after his legendary 74-game run, is the easy favorite. He’s a charmingly goofy man with a very corny Twitter account and a sweet demeanor, making him the platonic Jeopardy! hero. Directly opposed to him is James Holzhauer, a professional gambler whose aggressive style and occasional harmless needling of his opponents makes him a wonderful low-stakes heel. And then there’s the underdog, Brad Rutter, who has lost every game so far despite holding the record for winning the most money in game show history on Jeopardy! He’s the closest this show gets to a tragic figure: the man with the longest history on this show coming back and falling short because he can’t quite land the Daily Doubles he needs to compete with gamblers like Holzhauer.
The Greatest of All Time could wrap up tonight. Its first three games, which aired last Tuesday through Thursday, ended with Holzhauer winning one game and Jennings winning two. What happens next depends on tonight’s game: if Jennings wins, it’s over, but if Rutter or Holzhauer do, the series continues until a contestant has won three.
There is virtually no other context in which watching three millionaires compete for an additional $1 million prize is this charming. Perhaps this is because Jeopardy! still feels so egalitarian, even as most of its celebrated players are largely white and male. Either through completely normal and harmless delusion or actual bona fides, it’s easy to believe you have a shot at doing just as well. And more importantly, if you get the chance and fail, it won’t cost you anything other than your time.
Jeopardy! is one of the few long-running game shows that is not designed to have contestants behave like rats in a greed-fueled maze, where they are expected to shout at a wheel or perform ridiculous stunts. It’s the rare game show that’s built in a way that lets you hold onto your dignity. Maybe that’s why we keep watching.