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‘Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time’ Is a Welcome and Thrilling Surprise (Column)

Before “Jeopardy!’s” current “The Greatest of All Time” tournament began, I was firmly against it. To be frank, the idea bummed me out; “Jeopardy!,” at its best, strikes me as a profoundly democratic show, one whose appeal is or was its rewarding random folks for their trivia prowess. The elimination of the five-night limit allowed certain dominant contestants to develop seemingly insurmountable advantages in the way of experience and confidence, making the show feel grimly uncompetitive; the institution of a sort of star system, bringing back past favorites over and above simply the Tournament of Champions, developed a sense that certain among “Jeopardy!’s” past performers were not just more successful but themselves more important to the show’s ongoing success than others, a jarring way to present a show on which the trivia is really the star. I was biased, as a former “Jeopardy!” contestant who had not been met with the success of Ken Jennings, but I nevertheless felt a pang of something bigger than my own fortunes. The show was, at its best, meant to showcase new minds, not keep celebrating familiar ones.

In short, I had a bad feeling about it. And then I watched its first three nights. It’s really fun! The tournament is obviously not what “Jeopardy!” itself is — the semi-egalitarian entity described above and still airing in syndicated daytime or early-evening TV. It’s, first, a suspension of the typical, like Monopoly played using unorthodox house rules or a substitute teacher letting you watch a movie instead of doing the lesson. And it’s a genuinely rollicking thrill to see players who are frankly too good at “Jeopardy!” to make the show watchable against normal competitors go up against one another.

Everything about this “Jeopardy” event seems maximalist — the fast-reaction buzzer moves, the wagers, the drama. And yet because all three participants have already been made wealthy (and because, perhaps more crucially, all are already legends within the game-show universe), the show feels pleasantly lower-stakes than the nightly version. Jokes can be exchanged between competitors; the contestant running a distant third, Brad Rutter, is at least presenting the image of being unbothered. 

Rutter’s competitors, James Holzhauer and Ken Jennings, are more widely-known; each came to prominence during the unlimited-run era, when champions’ stints lasted as long as their luck. Rutter lasted the requisite five nights on Jeopardy in 2000 before being cut off by the show’s own limit; his “Jeopardy!” fame stems from appearances in other, less-heralded “Jeopardy!” tournaments over time. Rutter’s bad fortune in the tournament after previously limitless success provides just enough pathos to watch. After all, on a normal episode of “Jeopardy!,” he’d be running the table so handily it really wouldn’t be much fun — like an aging but still-world-class athlete among high school varsity players. Here, among peers, his overzealous wagers are appropriately cordoned off. I’m glad not every episode of “Jeopardy!” features an unbeatably dominant star, that people still go two or three nights as champion then lose. But I’m glad, too, these episodes are the thrill that they are.

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