Bidding a final, poignant adieu to "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek amidst our nation's chaos

In a week marred by violence and anxiety, Trebek's last episodes were an oasis of calm and intellectual uplift

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published January 8, 2021 8:12PM (EST)

Game show host Alex Trebek poses on the set of the "Jeopardy!" Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational Tournament Show Taping on April 17, 2010 in Culver City, California. (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
Game show host Alex Trebek poses on the set of the "Jeopardy!" Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational Tournament Show Taping on April 17, 2010 in Culver City, California. (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

Win and loss. Confirmation and concession. In normal times and in those falling into the category of the new normal, these would be the dualistic terms by which we'd define this week. Right-wing extremists had other plans. Now the dualities themselves occupy one end of the spectrum, and chaos, terrorism, violence and death spinning wildly on the other. In eye of it all, as ever, there is "Jeopardy!"

Friday marks the final episode hosted by Alex Trebek, whose 36-year run ended in November 2020. Trebek died after a public battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer; he was 80 years old. According to a recent report in Deadline, Trebek's last episode doesn't include a farewell or special message to viewers that makes it stand apart from the others.

He didn't intend to leave the show's loyal audience that way. A year ago he shared his plan with reporters, saying he'd time his farewell message for 30 seconds before the end of his final half hour with the show. As for which show and when that would happen, Trebek genuinely couldn't say, explaining that he decided a long time ago that he'd make that call "on a whim, on that particular day."

But "Jeopardy!" executive producer Mike Richards explained that not even Trebek thought that his finale episode on Friday actually would be his last. He filmed the episode 10 days before he passed away, expecting to return for a few more tapings. Because of this, Richard says the words marking Trebek's last moments on the show that he made an institution are the same that close every episode: "See you next time."

Watching this week's "Jeopardy!" series while madness seized the nation's Capitol and shocked people around the world into near-paralysis emphasizes why the show transcends eras and, yes, even hosts. The simple answer is that it is a beacon of stability, a bastion of indisputable fact.

Of course this also leads into a longer discussion of why it must stand, in some form, as an island of sanity in a world being unraveled by chaos and ignorance. "Jeopardy!" offers half an hour each night of a gracious test of general knowledge suitable for all ages, whose contestants come from a variety of backgrounds and occupy every kind of profession.

It would be wrong to say anyone can make it to one of those podiums; by now we know better than to ignore the impact educational inequality and economic advantage has on the contestant pool. But if this week has taught us anything, it is that ignorance sure isn't limited to lower tax brackets.

As reporters and law enforcement identify more individuals who breached the Capitol in their terrorist act I'm wagering we'll discover that many of them are well-educated or at least what one would describe as "comfortable." Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the riot's main instigators, is an alumnus of Stanford and Yale Law School. None of these degrees prevented him from championing benightedness or learning from the failures of despots past.

This is relevant to the "Jeopardy" conversation because on the same day that storm raged, viewers could turn on "Jeopardy!" and watch Trebek deftly guide contestants through the responses he was looking for . . . and appreciate the physical effort it took for him to be in their presence, to fulfill the awkward banter segment, to congratulate each small victory along the way to final "Jeopardy!"

A cloudiness dimmed his voice on Tuesday's telecast but not his acuity, and seemed even brighter on Wednesday. Contestants were as determined and cool under pressure as one would expect. There was the woman whose funny story involved missing an appearance by David Sedaris, which earned a laugh from Trebek, and from me, and made me appreciate the fact that none of the producers though that Sedaris' identity would require explaining. People watching "Jeopardy" are either familiar with the author or they know to look him up.

There's an unspoken understand that if you're watching this show, you are curious and hungry; it serves the learned and the eager to learn equally. People who excel at trivia might contest this idea by pointing out that the best player excels at rote learning and memorize facts without much emphasis on context, and there's some truth to that.

I'd also point out that maybe if you determined enough to know that the correct response to the answer "this Incan citadel resides in Andes Mountains in Peru" is "What is Machu Picchu?" you're already far more open to experiencing other parts of the world and ways of being, not to mention expanding your knowledge of history, world events and other subjects, than the average closed-minded person.

Trebek did his part to improve our smarts by maintaining a gentle kindness, even when a contestant answered a question incorrectly. I cannot recreate the experience better that my colleague and Trebek super-fan Mary Elizabeth Williams does in the tribute she wrote to him:

There's that little pause of Canadian restraint, as if to say, "I thought it was obvious," before his devastating, "I'm sorry but of course we were looking for James Monroe/Liechtenstein/igneous rock."

He isn't punitive. He doesn't tease or linger. He treats it like a blip and moves to the next tile on the board, and maybe the person at home who didn't know the answer either resolves to fill in that gap in their mental library.

Long before America stopped agreeing upon the same set of facts our culture skittered into a tendency to equate edification with snobbery and inquisitiveness with elitism, and yet Trebek's humble embodiment of those two virtues is precisely why his fandom transcends partisanship.

Seeing him take the "Jeopardy!" stage these final times, and knowing that it could not have been easy or painless to do so, further reinforces our memory of him as an intellectual stalwart.

Trebek was our placid, beloved guide in an endless tour of knowing and learning for all these years. That makes him a very difficult act to follow, a lesson "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings may learn when he steps in next week as the show's first interim host (and in the direct aftermath of a controversy). So far producers haven't named a permanent inheritor to Trebek's position or even publicly announced the next guest host.

Whoever ends up in either role assumes a mantle as important to us as a leader's calming words. They will remind us that we will go on in the same way that "Jeopardy!" endures, even neither the game nor the audience will ever be the same.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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