Fish and visitors stink after three days. But “Jeopardy!” winners like Mattea Roach, in the new age of the super-champ, can stay as many weeks as they like.
So, at least, say many fans.
Roach, a 19-day champ as of Friday, is one of a new crop of uber-winners who – some rejoice, and some complain – are fundamentally changing the nature of the beloved trivia game where contestants answer in the form of a question.
In recent months, Amy Schneider (40 games), Matt Amodio (38 games), James Holzhauer (32 games), and Jason Zuffranieri (19 games), among others, have turned “Jeopardy!” into a game of streaks.
Roach, a Toronto tutor who has earned $ 460,184 to date on the show, ranks sixth place for earnings in the show.
“However you slice it, we have had some amazing champions this season, and at just 23, Mattea is playing in the ballpark of any of them,” said host Ken Jennings on Thursday.
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The fact that Jennings, the greatest “Jeopardy!” champ of them all (74 games) has emerged as the de facto host of the show following the death of iconic host Alex Trebek in late 2020, seems to clinch it. “Jeopardy!” is now a game of giants – and, every once in a while, a giant killer.
But – and this is the distinctive nature of “Jeopardy!” and its fans – mostly they’re very nice giants.
“Mattea is so wonderful,” said Nancy Chiller Janow of South Orange, a librarian who herself appeared on “Jeopardy!” in 1989.
“I love her enthusiasm and quirkiness,” Janow said. “And her compassion for the other contestants. She has done nothing but praise the people who came up against her. And they do the same for her. If the people she conquered feel that way, she must be OK.”
As it happens, Janow is in an interesting position to compare.
When she played “Jeopardy!” 33 years ago, the “five game rule” was in effect. Contestants were limited to a week’s worth of games – the number played in a single filming day. This insured that the jackpot was never extreme. It also militated against breakout stars like Mattea Roach.
“I was sure I was going to be on for five nights,” said Janow, who tripped up on the first night’s Final Jeopardy: “Shakespeare’s only play with an English locale in its title.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” of course. She was devastated, as a librarian, to remember that later. She wrote down “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” “Maybe I was going for Verona, NJ,” she said.
There were, she notes, no second second- or third-place cash prizes then. Runners-up got gifts. “I got lovely his-and-hers sports clothes, and a lifetime supply of Lifesavers,” Janow said. “I donated them all to my PTA.”
One thing the contestants didn’t have to worry about in 1989: intimidating mega-champs.
That all changed in 2003, when the five-game rule was dropped. The following year, 2004, Ken Jennings went on to become the first and most formidable of the “Jeopardy!” monsters, winning more than $ 2.5 million during his five months on the air.
In the process, many viewers got hooked. The question of when, or if, Jennings would go down kept “Jeopardy!” fans glued to their screens and boosted ratings. But, say some fans, something may have been lost in the process.
“As a viewer, I find it less interesting when one player is so dominant,” said Christine O’Donnell of Elmwood Park, who herself appeared on “Jeopardy!” in September 2018.
“I like the competition of the show,” O’Donnell said. “When it comes to Final Jeopardy and they can’t be caught, it’s a little less interesting than when the other contestants are nearly equal.”
She, as a matter of fact, was caught on Final Jeopardy. The category was 20th century novels. The clue: “” I’ve killed my brother ‘is said near the end of this 1952 book with a biblical title and a plot echoing a biblical story.”
She answered “Grapes of Wrath.” The correct response was “East of Eden.”
Right author anyway: John Steinbeck.
“So I’m in LA, and I go to the Warner Bros. studio the next day, and you literally visit the house where ‘East of Eden’ was filmed,” she said. “And then they show you the poster. It was painful.”
Back to basics?
In light of the recent spate of super-champs, some have demanded a return of the five-game rule.
They worry that the show is starting to be driven by big wins and big personalities, rather than the simple, egalitarian love of trivia that drew many of them to “Jeopardy!” the first place.
They worry that ordinary viewers, watching these braniacs whose knowledge seems so superhuman, will no longer find “Jeopardy!” aspirational – something they might be able to do, too. They worry about the Moneyball types, numbers crunchers, now following “Jeopardy!” with their heads full of stats and handicaps.
But others love the breakout stars: James Holzhauer with his gambler’s cockiness, Amy Schneider with her tattoos and her affability, Mattea Roach with her endearing chattiness.
“I think it makes it more relatable to the average person,” said Genevieve Sheehan of Florida, who was on the show in October 2009.
A contestant star, she says, is an added headline that raises the “Jeopardy!” profile in the culture. For her and many “Jeopardy!” fans, that’s always a win.
“‘Jeopardy!’ is the last couple of years has become much better at social media, in terms of promoting its wins and sharing the contestants’ relatable moments, and goofy moments, “Sheehan said. “They’ve become better at memeifying. They’ve shared deeper statistics about the contestants.”
Whether “Jeopardy!” is or is not a different game for the viewers, it certainly is a different game for the players.
Terry Wolfisch Cole of Connecticut, who appeared on the show Jan. 6 of this year, had been watching with dismay as Matt Amodio racked up win after win. When he was finally defeated on Oct. 11 – a few weeks before her scheduled taping on Nov. 1 – she remembers breathing a sigh of relief. “I was kind of rooting against him,” she said. “When he lost, I cheered out loud, and called my sister saying, ‘Oh my God, Matt lost!’ ”
What she wasn’t taking into account is that “Jeopardy!” shows are taped months in advance of airing. When she arrived in California and walked onto the soundstage, she walked into a buzz saw.
Shock of her life
“When I walked into the room, America had not yet met Amy Schneider, who had already won 23 games,” she said. “When they told us that, we thought they were kidding.”
They were not.
“I had thought Matt was such an aberration,” she said. “I didn’t think for a minute that I would be running into a super-champ. I thought by the time I showed up it would be back to regular ‘Jeopardy!’ “
Terry lost that game. But not without scoring a personal triumph: she bested Amy at one key moment, in the “Missouri Compromise” category. “Amy got that wrong,” as Terry relates on her website tellmeanotherstories.com.
“The question had to do with an old political party,” Cole said. Amy answered ‘Whig.’ I was able to buzz in with ‘Federalist.’ If you watch the episode, you can see me grin when it happens. “
Why the sudden spate of super-champs? There are any number of possible explanations: not least of which is sheer coincidence.
But Cole notes that most of the recent champs have been young. And that may give them an advantage – if not in the breadth of knowledge, than in speed on the all-important signaling device. Good reflexes, plus a youth spent playing video games, could make all the difference.
“Many of the super-champs are, relatively speaking, young,” Cole said. “They’re not over 50. They might be more comfortable with a button under their thumb than somebody who’s 60 might be.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Twitter: @ jimbeckerman1