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In the months since Alex Trebek’s final episode as “Jeopardy” host was broadcast, the game show has seemed at times uncertain about its best way forward. “Jeopardy” had, through the tenures of its first three guest hosts, placed a rigorous emphasis on Trebek’s legacy. In booking Dr. Mehmet Oz as the fourth substitute to fill Trebek’s podium, the show begins what may eventually be the process of undoing that legacy.
Oz, among the most-well-known and -loved faces in the daytime firmament with his eponymous show, is a broadcaster in the classic sense — a figure with few limits on his appeal. He got to this place by trading on his legitimate real-world bona fides — as a Harvard and Penn-educated cardiothoracic surgeon — to spread a broadly appealing gospel that mixes together that which is true with that which is pleasant or attention-getting to believe. Notable instances mentioned in past coverage of Oz include his claiming, on his show, that arsenic is present in apple juice and that green coffee beans are an effective weight-loss supplement. Elsewhere, he promoted hydroxychloroquine, the baseless and ineffective COVID-19 treatment. He has also provided a megaphone to vaccine denialists and to antigay conversion therapy, as well as, during the run-up to the 2016 election, candidate Donald Trump, who used Oz’s show as the venue to put forward his medical records, which Oz scanned and approved.
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All of this adds up to a portrait of a person for whom facts are less important than showmanship — running directly counter to the idea of a show that proudly burnishes its identity as one of the last venues in American life where the truth is paramount. If that aspect of “Jeopardy’s” appeal has been somewhat overstated in the past, it felt a bit like rebalancing the scales. After all, “Jeopardy,” with its assured, unfashionable resistance to flash, gets thirty minutes a day. Desperate self-promoters for whom the most urgent sort of truth lies in the camera’s gaze get so much of the rest of our media consumption.
Oz’s booking is confusing on the merits: There are several daytime hosts who could competently read cards and who have not actively pushed wrongheaded views. Could Oz’s credentials have so effectively gulled a show whose questions are vetted against sources — and whose last host was renowned for his interpersonal skills and not his academic record? (Little wonder past “Jeopardy” contestants sound more than anything surprised in a widely-circulated petition of protest.) But it’s outright baffling in light of the amount of energy that has thus far been expended in promoting the Trebek legacy to viewers. The series’ first guest host, former champ Ken Jennings, thanked Trebek at the end of every one of his broadcasts, a well-intended gesture that came to emphasize the long shadow cast over the franchise. The next in the spotlight, the show’s executive producer Mike Richards, ended with a similar but more verbose daily benediction about how viewers ought to take Trebek’s advice to improve society. (This, verging on the hyperbolic, had the strange effect of trivializing Trebek, a truly gifted and empathetic broadcaster whom one can imagine bristling at his truisms presented as teachings bearing daily repetition.) Katie Couric, the first host to enter from outside the show’s own universe, brought new energy to the show as well as a different sort of tribute: The former news anchor induced the show to make a daily donation to pancreatic cancer research through the Stand Up to Cancer organization she co-founded, seeking an end to the disease that killed both Couric’s sister and Trebek himself.
It’s at this sort of cheerily benevolent philanthropy — tied into Couric’s own story, with a touch that makes it resonate with the legend of Trebek — that one learns over years on camera, and that made Couric, who has said she does not want the job, seem like a counterintuitively great choice for it. Couric’s lack of pretense in seeming genuinely impressed by the knowledge of the contestants brought a new energy to a show that had historically been defined by a charmingly withering tone; if Jennings seemed at times to want to race contestants to the answers, Couric was unusually happy to shift the spotlight.
Like Couric, Oz is using the show to raise money for a self-created charity, about which there’s nothing to criticize. Unlike her, Oz has brought it back onto himself. Those seeking to find fault in his first couple of episodes by looking closely at his interjecting himself into the gameplay, adding unwanted or unneeded context after correct answers, will find it. But what matters more is the baggage he’s brought to the show.
Oz is, unlike Jennings and Richards, comfortable playing host on TV; unlike Couric, he’s given no indication he’s not interested in boosting his profile with daily appearances on a very widely watched game show. If indeed “Jeopardy” gave Trebek the status in our culture that went beyond celebrity and lent his statements the urgent power of daily repetition, imagine what they might do for someone who had a message more potentially harmful than urging us to try to build a kinder society. Two weeks of Oz is a black eye for “Jeopardy”; anything more would be outright destructive to a show that is a part of many millions of Americans’ daily routines. And, worse, it would ultimately be harm inflicted not by Oz, who reporting has shown to seem lost in the camera’s gaze, unconcerned with fact or fiction, but by producers who we might expect to know better. The casting decision will be revealing: Maybe, for all its proclamations about the rewards of knowledge, “Jeopardy” will show itself to be no different, and no smarter, from the rest of TV.
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