On Friday, Jan. 8, legendary Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek — who died Nov. 8 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer — will make his final appearance on the iconic game show. I am definitely not ready to say goodbye.
While I appreciate the fact that Sony Pictures Television prolonged the inevitable by scheduling two weeks of curated reruns over the holidays (Trebek’s last airdate was originally slated for Dec. 25), I now find myself wishing and hoping for another continuance.
Trebek is partly to blame for the state of denial I find myself in. In the episodes that aired immediately following his death, I found myself hyper-attuned to his physical and mental state, searching for clues that he was nearing the end of his cancer battle. But with each passing pre-taped episode, I found none.
As podcaster/comedian/onetime Jeopardy! contestant Louis Virtel so acutely observed on Twitter in early December, “Is anyone tabulating the emotional toll of watching Alex Trebek still do a tremendous job and tell us ‘See you next time!’ every night? It’s comforting and gutting every single time.”
Unlike Virtel and so many longtime Trebek acolytes, my affection for the TV legend does not date back to my childhood. I did not watch Jeopardy! as a kid. Or even as a young adult. Sure, I caught the occasional episode — typically while visiting my maternal grandparents, who never missed Jeopardy! or time slot sidekick Wheel of Fortune. But it was by no means a steady part of my TV repertoire.
That changed in 2014 when my husband’s own cancer fight neared its conclusion. His parents were staying with us and every night the four of us would gather to watch Jeopardy! and Wheel. The routine proved to be an essential crisis panacea.
I turned to the soothing syndicated elixir again this past spring when the Trump-inflamed collision of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd made for a perfect storm of anger, sadness and hopelessness. Amid a steady stream of apocalyptic New York Times email alerts, I could count on Trebek’s steady, wise, reassuring presence to calm my fraying nerves.
And to remind me of my intellectual blindspots.
It’s odd that I get so much pleasure from watching Jeopardy! considering I am so aggressively terrible at PLAYING Jeopardy! Sure, I tend to do well with the TV-themed categories, but if the topic concerns anything of actual importance — like world history or geography or who invented cotton swabs — I’m typically at a loss.
Of course, that never stops me from loudly and confidently solving every single clue Trebek reads aloud like a cut-for-time SNL skit. The question involves a war, you say? I’ll cockily provide the name of said war before a single contestant buzzes in. Will it be the correct war? No. Will I be in the right hemisphere or even century? Eh, probably not. Will I bounce back from the humiliating setback quickly enough to attack the next clue with the same level of misplaced bravado? You betcha.
Jeopardy! EP Mike Richards has said that Trebek’s super-human powers will continue to be on full display in his final five episodes (the first of which airs this Monday), even though those episodes were shot less than two weeks before his death — and despite the fact that he was, as Richards acknowledged, “in pain” at the time.
Will we see glimpses of the suffering he thus far has so miraculously shielded viewers from? Selfishly, I hope not. If at all possible, I would very much like to remain in denial through his final Jeopardy! sign-off. The harsh reality can hit me at 7 pm on Monday, Jan. 11, when interim host Ken Jennings takes the stage instead of Trebek. I’ll hopefully be ready by then.