Mike Richards’ first episode as host of “Jeopardy!” — one of what would end up totaling only five — taped Aug. 19 but only aired, after his ouster, on Monday night. He was introduced by longtime announcer Johnny Gilbert as “the host of ‘Jeopardy!’”; he delivered brief tributes to Gilbert and to his predecessor Alex Trebek up top. And viewers who hadn’t been following the saga of his hiring and eventual firing over the past months might be forgiven for being very confused by a broadcast that offered no clarity about absolutely any of it.
Richards had been the show’s executive producer before he found himself in the middle of a search to replace late emcee Trebek. And his eventual selection as that on-air replacement raised eyebrows, even more so when reporting by the Ringer’s Claire McNear, in a piece that dropped Aug. 18, exposed ill-advised comments Richards had made about women and people with disabilities, among others, on a podcast. That, along with other reporting about the climate Richards had fostered as the EP of “The Price Is Right,” created a situation whereby Richards was an untenable choice.
The torrent of bad news for Richards had not yet overcome him at the taping. But the host felt, still, as though he was already edging towards his own disappearance on his very first day. This lends a sense either of a hasty cutting job or of a new host who felt, justifiably, anything but secure in the role. Up top, Richards either made no explicit reference to the show’s changing of the guard, or any such reference was edited out. A video piece depicted the dedication of the “Jeopardy!” set as the “Alex Trebek Stage” on the Sony lot, and Richards’ “So, for the first time, from the Alex Trebek stage,” let’s play ‘Jeopardy!,’” was the only plainspoken indication that Richards as host was not the way it had always been. In his guest-host tenure of two weeks, Richards had ended every episode with a verbose tribute to Trebek; this time, he just said: “What an incredible way to kick off the season! Let’s do it again tomorrow. Hope to see you then.”
No reference was made, either, to the fact that Richards as host was not what would always be — that, at the end of this week (and of what had been a single tape day), he would be ushered off the show’s stage for good. It’s hard to imagine a graceful way for the show to have set the table for his eventual disappearance, but “Jeopardy!’s” botched handling of the host selection, utterly destroying any goodwill built by a fun and exciting procession of guest hosts, has indicated gracefulness is not in the show’s post-Trebek repertoire anyhow. Presumably the show is white-knuckling this week: It cannot not air the Richards episodes, as developments in returning mega-champion Matt Amodio’s ongoing gameplay happened on them that cannot be restaged.
But if the hosting crisis affected, first, the heavily online, it’s now finally bleeding out into the broader world of “Jeopardy!” viewers. It’s easy to believe that many among the millions who watch the show have no meaningful idea what happened with Richards; bringing him in unceremoniously with no context setting the table for his eventual dumping will do the show no favors in the long term. Shows like “Jeopardy!” thrive on familiarity and consistency — that, more than anything, is what people are thinking of when they recall the Trebek era. A show that brings in a new host they know is leaving in a week, without any hint or sense that he’s on his way out, is a ticking time bomb set to do structural damage to that consistency. (The contestants are, or ought to be, the stars of “Jeopardy!” But who, in this ongoing game of musical chairs among hosts, is getting all the attention?)
An issue, perhaps, is that the selection of Richards — and Richards’ consolidation of power as EP and newly-hired host — meant that there was no one in the “Jeopardy!” universe who could hop on air for 30 seconds at the top of the episode and briefly state that these episodes feature a host who was later fired, and that a new permanent host is coming soon. Perhaps the producers are just over it. Or maybe, next week, the show’s first returning guest host, Mayim Bialik, will explain that Richards, the host who never really was, is now no more, and the search continues in compromised form. “Jeopardy!” doesn’t need to do much to address the chaos that’s materially affecting the production; no one is asking for a televised town hall. But the absence of even the briefest of explanations seemed, in an episode destined to be part of a future trivia question about shortest-tenured TV personalities, like a signal of a show in distress. And “Jeopardy!” needs to do more than its current strategy of hoping people don’t notice that it’s melting down.