My dad died in February, unexpectedly. I got 32 great years with him—more than some, less than others.
Six weeks later, I quit my job and moved back into my childhood bedroom, down the hall from my mom. One thing I noticed, right away, was her unruly DVR. In theory, she knew exactly how the service worked: find the show, hit the red button, watch the show, eventually delete the show. She’s an extremely capable person. Until that point, though, there’d been no reason for her to manage any recordings; like the family finances, say, or the lawn care, this fell under Dad’s purview. Plus, the logistics of a family death are byzantine and draining. Plan this funeral. Swap these accounts. Call that telecommunications conglomerate for the 50th time. Clean out this closet and this crawl space and this office. Memories are everywhere, patience finite. Television was an understandably low priority, and Mom wasn’t ready to pick up that particular piece of slack.
A full season of Blue Bloods, plus re-runs. Weeks of Meet the Press Beltway prattle. Four dozen episodes of Fixer Upper. (How many fucking houses are in Waco?) Buried beneath it all was a cache of Jeopardy! games stretching back into the winter, before everything went to hell.
“Wanna play?” Mom asked one night, settling into the couch, a plate of stir fry on her lap, the ancient tube television humming a few feet to her left. And so began our arbitrary and surprisingly therapeutic evening routine. We’d fix dinner, pour some drinks, and queue up America’s favorite quiz show. Alex Trebek, of all people, would help us fight through the muck.
The Trebekian version of Jeopardy! wraps its 33rd season this month. It’s earned Emmys (16), a Peabody (in 2011), loving Saturday Night Live send-ups, and a fanbase of casual appreciators, game theorists, and exhaustive archivists. “Think!,” the ubiquitous lullaby-turned-theme song, reportedly generated $80 million in royalties for composer and series creator Merv Griffin. Trebek has run some 7,500 games and read over 330,000 clues. Nearly 10 million viewers—elderly, sure, but still conscious—tune in every week. The once-mustachioed host even extended his contract this spring, agreeing to man his lectern through 2020.
It’s startling, the improbability of it all. This is a syndicated trivia show, starring an inadvertently smug Canadian, which airs, in most markets, before normal people finish their commutes. It’s cheaper to produce than The Crown, but it’s not like there’s zero overhead, either. Hundreds of game shows have launched and faded since its reboot. Why has Jeopardy! survived? Even Trebek is stumped. “I guess the fact that Americans are very competitive,” he told NPR, lamely, last year.
Jeopardy!’s longevity is, among other things, a testament to its design. The show is simple and serious, rewarding a certain type of cultural literacy and creativity. There are no gimmicks—buzz fast and answer more questions than your competitors. Be smarter. The three bonuses—five percent of the board—introduce just enough chance without shifting the balance too far towards randomness. There’s even a backdoor lyricism to the “answers,” those 100-character capsules that bend and meander with corny wit, often leading players to a question that is otherwise obvious. And because contestants are prevented from signaling before Trebek finishes reading each clue, the audience at home is free to follow along with the action.
The structure and beats of any given Jeopardy! episode are basically the same today as the were in 1984. The tacky set. The blue boxes with the all-caps white lettering. The hand-drawn name tags. Polite applause. The noise when a contestant lands on a Daily Double!, which sounds as if you’ve blown up a Space Invader. Trebek positioned at a 45-degree angle, delivering his knowing nods and gentle admonishments. It’s soothing. Stable. Maybe even timeless? At the very least, the producers have taken a good thing and refused to break it.
In the Doster home game, the rules are unspoken and immutable. We don’t jot on scoresheets or track our progress on dedicated apps. We keep score only in the most vague sense: does it feel like I’ve got more points than you? Since the wagers are meaningless, every Daily Double! turns into a true Daily Double!. We shout our responses at any time, except for Final Jeopardy!, at which point we follow the studio conventions. (This inconsistency bugs my mom, as I tend to read marginally faster than she does; only periodically does she complain.) Because we do not care if a perfectly pleasant dweeb babysat Sarah Jessica Parker or got engaged on an Amazonian fishing boat, we fast-forward through the bumbling anecdotes. (This 20-minute exercise is about us, not them.) And we never deliver our answers in the form of a question.
When my mom and I needed an outlet, there was Jeopardy!. We could spend time together, right next to each other, with no pressure to do or discuss all that was left to do or discuss. The game asks little of you, yet still treats you like an adult. It moves quickly, without repetition or dead air, which has a way of pulling you out of your own head; deep into Double Jeopardy!, there’s no time to wallow. Watching librarians and “e-discovery professionals” spit out the names of poets and British monarchs is more comforting than rooting for my favorite baseball team while they tank, or following two house-hunting yuppies on some quixotic quest to find a double-sink bathroom vanity. It fosters a kind of communal, competitive mindfulness.
Occasionally, Jeopardy! gives us something to howl about, too. A few weeks back, we were wrapping up our second episode, waiting for the Final Jeopardy! clue. Alex announced the category, and it was a clunky one: WORDS IN THE NEWS 2016. Per custom, Mom and I each bet all of our imaginary, unquantified points.
In his book Prisoner of Trebekistan, former champion Bob Harris reminds players that “doing nothing is better than doing something really stupid.” (It’s one step in his Eightfold Path to Enlightened Jeopardy!.) This is sound advice, whether you’re in a Burbank soundstage or lounging in your family room.
Back from the break, Trebek read the answer with typical erudition: “NASA wished John Glenn this 8-letter word when he made the 1st U.S. manned orbital flight in 1962 & again upon his passing in 2016.”
I froze. Nothing.
Mom smiled. The players scribbled. The music droned on. “Onward” came up two letters short. “Good luck” had an erroneous space. I hemmed. I hawed. I panicked. Finally, I blurted out the only eight-letter space word that came to mind.
“Uh … BLASTOFF?”
The correct question, as everyone else immediately concluded? “What is Godspeed?”
Thank heavens I’d already delivered Dad’s eulogy.
Adam Doster is a writer who lives in Chicago.