What is ‘Jeopardy!’ Could learn from the best UK game show hosts

America is no longer leading the world stage to a crucial extent.

We have lost the supremacy of game show hosts.

On “Jeopardy!”, the flagship of American trivia games, star power has been outsourced to the contestants. And recent longtime champions Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio brought energy that was otherwise lacking. The recent endless cycle through “Jeopardy!” the guest hosts having ended in a fiasco and then a compromise left Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik, sharing the role, adrift. Both are competent (and were among the more adept options on offer in the talent search throughout the season), but this viewer, at least, felt somewhat wrung out by the show’s shifting tones and the drama of his hopscotch between the masters of ceremonies and the shooting. by Mike Richards. This country’s flagship trivia game often feels chastened and a bit sallow.

The time I spent watching “Jeopardy!” was filled by two shows from the UK that completely understood the hosting situation – shows including the producers of “Jeopardy!” might learn a thing or two the next time the podium empties. (These shows are available on YouTube, and I don’t know what I’ll do if anyone who continues to download them decides to quit.)

My journey through British game shows started with ‘Pointless’, a show I had first heard about on social media. (It’s said to be a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II.) The object of the game is to find the least often guessed answer in a set. It’s a bit like a reverse “Family Feud”, where the object of the game is to be unique rather than 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 enthusiast. A comedian and recording artist, Armstrong has a full, happy voice and an easy way to attract applicants. And his comfort with the more obscure anecdotes is enhanced by his comfort in his own skin. He is so good at being in front of the camera that he makes even doldrums categories full of serendipity and life, so good at being with people that he makes even the most obviously wrong guess reasonable.

It’s worth noting that, trying to somewhat correct my relative lack of knowledge of Britain-centric trivia, the shows across the pond certainly present more of a challenge than “Jeopardy!” This makes the host’s job particularly difficult – to keep viewers engaged when they might otherwise be lost. Armstrong, a class clown who one wouldn’t guess has a perfect grade point average, has a way of deflating the inherent pomp of a game show host. Basically, it unloads the difficult expertise of anecdotes about an on-camera personality, Richard Osman, which adds perspective and context after the answers have been given; it’s up to Armstrong to reflect and amplify the competitors’ eagerness or disappointment. His “Useless”, on which the contestants are gently encouraged to take big risks and are met with an “Oh, bad luck!” when they’re not happening, has the human touch that’s lacking in “Jeopardy!”

From “Pointless”, I made the jump to “Only Connect”, a much more stimulating show. (The fact that his title refers to an aphorism from the work of novelist EM Forster should give you an idea.) He is hosted by what I can only describe as a one-of-a-kind figure. Victoria Coren Mitchell, British writer and professional poker player, has a kind of unity with the show: she doesn’t write the questions, but like the best hosts, she determines its character and direction. “Only Connect” asks contestants to find the often unexpected commonalities or connections between groups of things, and Coren Mitchell’s crooked joy in explaining to contestants what they missed doubles the fun of the connection that pops up. . When she explains the connections the contestants have missed, she has a way of bringing viewers on the run, explaining it to the rhythm of the dramatic escalation in her voice and helping the solution click moments before give it.

Coren Mitchell seems to sincerely love not only trivia, but also knowledge, of all kinds and from all front heights: when, for example, the correct answer is linked to a pop standard or a commercial jingle, the former student of Oxford will attempt to lead its competitors in song. In recent episodes, she’s experimented with her presentation — wearing Lana Del Rey-esque heart-shaped sunglasses or glittery face paint. She sometimes seems to be running a game within the game, testing to see how much personal amusement she can extract from the spaces around the questions and how much joy she can derive from sharing the answers. Most notably, when contestants share a response she didn’t expect, she’ll hear them out and ask them to explain why they think that’s the case — and she can just award the points, giving the series a air of serendipity and freewheeling.

There are format differences between “Jeopardy!” and “Only Connect” which would make that impossible, of course. And there’s a lot more at stake with Sony Pictures Television’s crown jewel than with a BBC Two series filmed, for some reason, in Cardiff. But I think there are lessons to be learned from “Pointless” and “Only Connect” for the producers of “Jeopardy!” – or, if that’s not too much to hope for, any producer working on a new game show that’s slightly more cerebral than “Wheel of Fortune.” What works in these British game shows is a set of traits that aren’t necessarily exclusive to Brits: Armstrong and Coren Mitchell both seem to be, first, really having fun with their jobs. The solemnity of the post-Trebek audition period demanded a kind of gravity from would-be “Jeopardy!” hosts; I think enough time has passed that we could wish for a little more exuberance in the mix.

And both Armstrong and Coren Mitchell do anecdotes — anecdotes that are, again, much more difficult than what happens on “Jeopardy!” – feel close at hand. A simple trivia aficionado can’t quite accomplish this: for Jennings, a polymath but not an interpreter, answers come easily and his interactions with contestants can seem flat. Armstrong and Coren Mitchell dramatize the process of arriving at the correct answer, because they are comfortable in front of the camera and at ease, even despite their obvious scholarship, thinking like average quiz contestants do. -shows. These are the kind of people we should have found for institutions like “Jeopardy!” » : the broadcasters first who attract the public. gets cold and distant, Armstrong and Coren Mitchell make their shows feel expansive and welcoming, even from coast to coast.

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