It was the middle of August 2021, and a swift union seemed to make sense. A week and a half earlier, Mike Richards, the executive producer of Jeopardy!, had been named the successor to longtime host Alex Trebek. Then, amid a storm of bad press and having filmed just five episodes as host, Richards abruptly stepped down. Production screeched to a halt with the season premiere mere weeks away. Already, a full day of taping had been canceled at the last minute, with more tapings the following week likely to meet the same fate. Sony needed episodes in the can and, just as important, something to quiet the worst press cycle in Jeopardy!’s history.
The answer appeared obvious: Mayim Bialik. The actor, after all, had just been announced as Richards’s backup—the host of occasional prime-time specials on ABC and yet-to-be-announced spinoffs, while Richards would take the more prominent role as the host of the daily syndicated edition. So when Bialik, waiting in the hospital while her boyfriend was having hip replacement surgery, told her agent to reach out to Sony, the studio was only too eager to put a deal together to get Bialik to host the daily show as soon as possible.
“From the hospital waiting room, I said to my agent, ‘Please ask how we can help,’” Bialik recalled to Glamour later. “That’s literally what I said. I don’t want to seem opportunistic, but I’m part of this family now.”
Almost two and a half years later, her role in that family has changed. On December 15, Bialik wrote in a statement that she had been informed by Sony that she would “no longer be hosting the syndicated version of Jeopardy!” Jeopardy! confirmed to The Ringer that Bialik is under contract until the end of the season with a one-year option remaining. With several months of taping remaining this season, Bialik was informed that her option would not be picked up.
The development has ushered in a series of reports looking into Sony’s concerns about Bialik and her performance as a host. According to a source close to production, Bialik was ultimately outshined in the role by Ken Jennings, the storied Jeopardy! contestant who was initially brought in to cohost only as a stopgap measure, filling in while Bialik was busy filming the Fox sitcom Call Me Kat, and who will now host the entirety of the syndicated show. But the reason for the change likely goes beyond that. So where did it all go wrong? And what does it mean for Jeopardy! moving forward?
When Bialik was named a host of Jeopardy!, the selection fit a certain obvious logic. The actor was widely known for her roles on the sitcoms Blossom and The Big Bang Theory, and she had drawn praise for a two-week stint guest hosting the quiz show after Trebek’s 2020 death. She also holds a PhD in neuroscience, brainy laurels that fit well with Jeopardy!’s brand. After Richards stepped down, first as host and then as executive producer, on the heels of reporting by The Ringer and other outlets that sparked concerns about his past and the integrity of the host search, she seemed like a natural choice to fill the void and bring stability.
Yet in some ways, Bialik made for an uneasy cultural fit. In his nearly 40 years on the job, Trebek crafted an image as more than just staid and reliable; publicly, he was also stringently apolitical. He spoke of voting for both Democrats and Republicans and generally avoided sharing his opinion on anything spicier than his preferred tipple (chardonnay). In recent years, Jeopardy! leadership has doubled down on that reputation, presenting the show as a safe harbor of impartiality in turbulent modern times where facts alone are what matter.
Bialik’s ascent at the show, then, represented a departure from those norms. Long an avid user of social media, Bialik has written and spoken extensively about her life and beliefs. After her hiring, a slew of controversies resurfaced, among them her promotion of a dubious brain health supplement called Neuriva, her 2017 New York Times op-ed about the #MeToo movement that many interpreted as victim blaming and for which Bialik later apologized, and her advocacy for a range of controversial parenting techniques, including delaying or withholding some vaccinations for children. Bialik has said that she is not anti-vaccine while also stating in 2020 that “we give way too many vaccines.”
Bialik has not shied away from weighing in on contentious subjects, telling Bill Maher recently about her distaste for cancel culture. At times, she has invoked Jeopardy! along the way. In October, she filmed an Instagram Reel with the Israeli actor Noa Tishby in which Bialik, who has written at length about her Jewish faith and Israel, riffed on her game-show duties while discussing the crisis in Gaza. “The free world is in jeopardy, but this time it’s not a game,” she said, before reading Tishby a series of Jeopardy!-style prompts. In a video published the day before Bialik announced her departure from the syndicated show, Bialik and Tishby again deployed a game-show format to make statements about the Israel-Hamas war. “You might be an antisemite if you think that the solution to what is going on in the Middle East is that the Jews should just go back to where they came from,” Bialik said. “The Jews are the indigenous people of the land of Israel,” Tishby added as Bialik nodded beside her, “so there’s nowhere to go back to.” A Sony official said that while the studio was aware of the videos, they had no impact on the decision not to retain Bialik on the syndicated show.
Then there’s the matter of her absence from the entirety of the current season of Jeopardy!, which began airing in September. In May, Bialik announced that she would cease hosting Jeopardy! in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America, which was on strike. “There’s a lot of complexity to this, but my general statement is always that I come from a union family,” she said later. “While it’s not for me to personally judge anyone else’s decision, for me, I am a union supporter—pretty much all unions and what they fight for.”
Sources close to the show say this stand was not exactly what it seemed. Jeopardy! and other game shows are guided by a distinct set of union provisions known as the Network Television Code, meaning that while Jeopardy!’s writers are members of the WGA and thus were part of the strike—many were prominent figures on picket lines in Los Angeles and New York—the rest of the staff and crew were not. SAG-AFTRA—which began its own strike in July and of which Bialik and Jennings are both members—explicitly advises non-striking members to continue to work per the terms of their contracts; to do otherwise can weaken the union’s negotiating power because it indicates that members might not follow the letter of the contract.
There was also a semi-recent precedent at Jeopardy!: During the 2007-08 writers strike, Trebek hosted throughout the work stoppage. Both then and during this year’s strike, the quiz show used only clues written before the writers decamped. (The Network Television Code is governed by its own contract, which runs through June 2024.)
Bialik’s move, however, left many decrying Jennings as a scab and criticizing Jeopardy! for taping at all. The actor Wil Wheaton, a friend of Bialik’s who she said was the first to predict she would get the Jeopardy! job, slammed Jennings in a widely discussed Facebook post in which he wrote, “Your privilege may protect you right now, but we will *never* forget.”
On December 18, Puck’s Matthew Belloni reported that Bialik’s decision to step back from hosting during the writers strike left Jeopardy! executive producer Michael Davies and Sony executive vice president of game shows Suzanne Prete “furious.” The WGA strike concluded in September, with SAG-AFTRA following in November, and Bialik still did not return to the show.
Issues persisted around Bialik’s performance in the studio, too. Part of that may have stemmed from her personal disconnect from Jeopardy!, about which she was up-front. She has written in the past about not watching any television and said that she learned of the opportunity to guest host only when her son saw buzz about the host search online. She seemed mystified by the level of scrutiny that the show, and, by extension, the host, received: “Like, who knew that people were so passionate about who hosts Jeopardy!?” she said shortly after taking on the series.
Her apparent unfamiliarity with the show’s rhythms and lore rankled some longtime fans. Complaints at times verged on petty: Viewers griped that she referred to the show’s first round as “single Jeopardy!,” a phrase Trebek himself used occasionally, and piled on about her propensity to laugh during exchanges with contestants—a charge that smacked of misogyny to some. Other viewers, however, pointed to more fundamental issues. Throughout her time as host, Bialik was criticized for noticeable pauses after contestants delivered responses, with Bialik sometimes going silent for a conspicuous beat before issuing a verdict. Less charitable observers took this as an indication of a lack of familiarity with the show’s material such that she needed to wait for offstage judges to decide if an unexpected answer was correct. Tellingly, it was Jennings and not Bialik who was tapped to host last year’s Tournament of Champions and this spring’s Masters contest—high-stakes competitions with more difficult material where mistakes by the host could have much more serious, and costly, consequences for players.
Bialik said that she suspected she would be reduced to tears if she were a contestant. “People ask if I know all that stuff, and I’m like, ‘No. No,’” she said. “Answering things like that under pressure with a timer is not gonna happen for me. It’s hard!”
The self-effacement presented a stark divergence from both Trebek, who perfected the art of always seeming to know more than the contestants, and Jennings, who won a record 74 games as a contestant in 2004.
Criticism of Bialik, often via comparison to Jennings, reached such a fever pitch that the moderators of the fan-run Jeopardy! subreddit stepped in to ban most anti-Bialik rhetoric. “Nitpicking even the smallest little mannerisms, as has frequently and ongoingly been the case with Mayim—it drags the community down and is not welcome,” a moderator wrote. Plenty of complaints still got through, however: After Call Me Kat, which was reportedly the primary obstacle to the actor’s ability to host more episodes of Jeopardy!, was canceled this May, one user wrote, “I’ve never been so upset about a show that I’ve never watched being canceled.” The comment attracted nearly 700 upvotes, making it one of the subreddit’s top three comments of 2023, according to the forum’s official year in review.
Other incidents widened the chasm between Bialik and Jeopardy!’s vocal online community of superfans. Last year, she said on multiple occasions that fans had criticized her for reusing an outfit on the show. Not only was there no clear evidence that she had taken a social media walloping over the jacket in question—recent posts featuring the jacket on both her and Jeopardy!’s Instagram accounts did not appear to have any comments criticizing the repetition—but some fans wondered whether she was lashing out at Lilly Nelson, a viewer who has attracted a loyal following and seemingly the blessing of Jeopardy!, which ran a feature on her online, for her rigorous cataloging of contestant and host garb alike.
Still, Bialik had plenty of fans, and ratings—sky-high, with Jeopardy! generally leading all shows in syndication—fluctuated little between the two hosts’ time at the lectern. This month, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch declared Bialik his favorite Jeopardy! host ever. (“w apologies to Alex T,” he wrote.) The staff was also fond of her, with reports of her surprise delivery of cupcakes for the crew early in her hosting tenure leaked immediately to the Daily Mail.
Jennings’s surpassing of Bialik to become the full-time host of the syndicated edition represents a stunning reversal of fates for the pair. At the outset of Jennings’s time hosting Jeopardy!, detractors criticized him for a lack of showbiz polish. Bialik’s decades of experience on camera, meanwhile, gave her an advantage in even small matters: her comfort with a teleprompter, for example, which Jennings spurned as an homage to the prompter-resistant Trebek, a decision that left him vulnerable to needing to re-tape segments.
Bialik spent her first months on the syndicated show on a media tour in which she made clear that she wanted the full-time job for good: “I’d give up my first child to host Jeopardy! forever,” she professed in Newsweek. Jennings struck a different note in his interviews at the time. “You’re not going to see me in the papers talking about how important it is that I ended up hosting,” he told USA Today. To CNN, he said he was “not particularly ambitious” enough to want the permanent gig.
That dynamic seemed to be reflected internally early on, when it was clear that Bialik’s reworked deal with Sony afforded her a superior position within the show. Throughout the 2021-22 season, Bialik was introduced in her episodes as “the host of Jeopardy!,” while Jennings was welcomed with the phrase “now hosting Jeopardy!”—seeming to emphasize that he was lower in the host pecking order. Davies, who came aboard as executive producer in the wake of Richards’s exit, eventually confirmed that the difference was because of Bialik’s contract, which stipulated that she was, in Davies’s phrasing, “the host of Jeopardy!,” while Jennings was merely a guest host. By the next season, however, both Bialik and Jennings had signed new deals with Sony that left them both billed simply as “host.”
With Bialik sidelined for the bulk of this year, Jennings had a third season of hosting reps to himself. Jennings has been widely praised for improving his onstage performance, and he has developed a persona that has traces of Trebek’s signature sarcasm as well as a bubbly eagerness to share additional factoids that you might expect from a trivia champion. That growth was noted within Sony, too: Many Jeopardy! staff members came to believe that Jennings had become the technically superior host, according to a source close to production, who says that Jennings’s improvement was the key factor that spelled the end for Bialik.
TMZ reported on December 20 that the extended period with a single host further helped convince Sony executives that the dual-host model was inferior. Critically, Jennings also filled in on Celebrity Jeopardy! in prime time—an assignment that would otherwise have gone to Bialik—and thrived, producing ratings on par with or exceeding those obtained by Bialik last year.
Jennings has had his own rocky moments, most notably when a series of his tweets including ableist comments reemerged in late 2020; he apologized for the “unartful and insensitive” messages. But he has by and large avoided controversy during his time as host. He is helped by the perception that he is Trebek’s natural heir, by dint of both his own history as a contestant and his ties to Trebek, who prepped Jennings over the phone to fill in for him shortly before his death; Trebek’s wife left a pair of his cuff links for the newbie host when Jennings arrived to tape his first episodes.
Bialik may yet return: A statement by Jeopardy! released on December 15 left open the possibility for Bialik to still host prime-time episodes in the future. Davies has spoken at length about his plans to expand the Jeopardy! franchise and said last year that the growth would necessitate “multiple hosts to represent the entire audience, to represent the entire country, in order to take this franchise forward.” (Davies has suggested that it was his decision “to bring Ken in and have Ken be a second host along with Mayim”; it is perhaps not coincidental that the TMZ report also contained the tidbit that Bialik “didn’t always agree with production decisions ... including the hiring of executive producer Michael Davies.”)
TMZ further reported that while Sony executives would like to maintain a relationship with Bialik, “Mayim made it clear it was all or nothing. As a result, we’re told Sony brass declined.” Even the public announcements of Bialik’s exit point to a rift: Jeopardy! did not publish its own statement until an hour after Bialik posted hers, and it wrote that “Mayim Bialik has announced that she will no longer be hosting the syndicated version of Jeopardy!,” suggesting that the actor may have acted unilaterally in making a final decision.
No matter how the rest of this unfolds, there is a certain irony to the way that the hire brought in to steady the ship made her own dramatic splash at Jeopardy! In the three years since Trebek’s death, the quiz show has at times felt doomed to cycle through recurring controversies. But this time, Jeopardy! finally looks to be in a position to get what it’s been palpably chasing all this time: just the right level of nerdy steadiness. As Jennings put it this week in reference to Trebek’s tenure, “I look forward to 37 more years of doing it, when I’ll be a very, very old man.”