America is no longer leading on the world stage in one crucial metric.
We’ve lost game-show-host supremacy.
On “Jeopardy!,” the standard-bearer for American quiz shows, star power has been outsourced to the contestants. And recent long-running champions Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio lent energy that had otherwise been missing. The recent endless cycling through “Jeopardy!” guest hosts having ended in a fiasco and then a compromise has left Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik, dividing the role, adrift. Both are competent (and were among the more adept options offered up in the season-long talent search), but this viewer, at least, felt somewhat wrung out by the show’s constantly shifting tones and the drama of its hopscotching between emcees and the firing of Mike Richards. The flagship trivia show in this country often feels chastened and a bit wan.
The time I used to spend watching “Jeopardy!” has been filled by two shows from the U.K. that have the hosting situation completely figured out — shows from which “Jeopardy!’s” producers could learn a thing or two the next time the podium falls empty. (These shows are available on YouTube, and I don’t know what I’ll do if whoever keeps uploading them decides to stop.)
My journey through British game-show fare began with “Pointless,” a show about which I’d first heard on social media. (It’s said to be a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II.) The object of the game is to find the least-commonly-guessed answer within a set. It’s rather like a reverse “Family Feud,” where the object of the game is being unique rather than being common. The show is hosted by Alexander Armstrong, who — like the late Alex Trebek, and unlike Jennings and Bialik — is first a broadcaster, then a trivia aficionado. A comedian and recording artist, Armstrong has a plummy, merry voice and an easy way of drawing out the contestants. And his comfort with the more obscure pieces of trivia is bolstered by his comfort in his own skin. He’s so good at being on camera that he makes even the doldrum categories feel full of serendipity and life, so good at being with people that he makes even the most obviously wrongheaded guess feel reasonable.
It’s worth noting that, attempting to correct somewhat for my relative lack of knowledge about British-centric trivia, shows across the pond certainly present as more challenging than “Jeopardy!” This makes the host’s job particularly challenging — keeping viewers engaged when they might otherwise be lost. Armstrong, a class clown whom one might not guess has a perfect grade-point average, has a way of deflating the inherent pomposity of a game-show host. Crucially, he offloads the hard trivia expertise to an on-camera personality, Richard Osman, who adds perspective and context after answers are given; it’s on Armstrong to mirror and amplify the contestants’ eagerness or their disappointment. His “Pointless,” on which contestants are gently encouraged to take big risks and met with a well-meant “Oh, bad luck!” when they don’t pan out, has the human touch that can be found lacking in “Jeopardy!”
From “Pointless,” I made the leap to “Only Connect,” a substantially more challenging show. (That its title is a reference to an aphorism from the work of novelist E. M. Forster should give you some idea.) It is hosted by what I can only describe as a one-of-a-kind figure. Victoria Coren Mitchell, a British writer and a professional poker player, has a sort of unity with the show: She doesn’t write the questions, but like the best hosts, she determines its character and its direction. “Only Connect” asks contestants to find the often-unexpected commonalities or ties between groups of things, and Coren Mitchell’s askew glee in explaining to contestants what they missed doubles the fun of the connection coming into view. When explaining connections that contestants missed, she has a way of bringing viewers along for the ride, explaining it beat by beat with escalating drama in her voice and helping the solution click moments before she gives it away.
Coren Mitchell seems genuinely to love not just trivia but knowledge, of all sorts and of every height of brow: When, for instance, the correct answer is connected to a pop standard or commercial jingle, the Oxford alumna will attempt to lead her contestants in song. In recent episodes, she’s experimented with her presentation — wearing Lana Del Rey-ish heart sunglasses, or glittering face paint. She seems at times to be running a game within the game, testing to see how much personal amusement she can wring from the spaces around the questions and how much joy she can derive from sharing the answers. Most notably, when contestants share an answer that she wasn’t expecting, she’ll hear them out and ask them to explain why they believe it’s so — and she may just award the points, giving the series an air of serendipity and freewheelingness.
There are format differences between “Jeopardy!” and “Only Connect” that would make this impossible, of course. And there’s a lot more at stake with the crown gem of Sony Pictures Television than with a BBC Two series filmed, for some reason, in Cardiff. But I think there are lessons to be taken from “Pointless” and “Only Connect” for the producers of “Jeopardy!” — or, if it’s not too much to hope, any producer working on a new game show slightly more cerebral than “Wheel of Fortune.” What works about these British game shows are a set of traits that are not necessarily exclusive to the Brits: Armstrong and Coren Mitchell both seem, first, to really be having fun in their jobs. The solemnity of the post-Trebek audition period demanded a sort of gravity from “Jeopardy!’s” potential emcees; I think enough time has passed that we can wish for a little more ebullience in the mix.
And Armstrong and Coren Mitchell both make trivia — trivia that is, again, substantially tougher than what comes up on “Jeopardy!” — feel within reach. A simple trivia aficionado can’t really accomplish this: To Jennings, a polymath but not a performer, answers come easily, and his interactions with contestants can feel flat. Armstrong and Coren Mitchell dramatize the process of coming to the correct answer, because they are comfortable on camera and comfortable, even in spite of their obvious erudition, thinking the way average quiz-show contestants do. They’re the sort of people we ought to have found for institutions like “Jeopardy!”: Broadcasters first who bring the audience in. As “Jeopardy!” grows chilly and remote, Armstrong and Coren Mitchell make their shows feel expansive and welcoming — even from an ocean away.