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Regional Interests

All the Reasons People are Mad About Mayim Bialik and Mike Richards Hosting ‘Jeopardy!’

Twitter exploded on Wednesday afternoon after Mayim Bialik (Blossom/Amy Farrah Fowler/real-life scientist) and Mike Richards (non-famous guy) were finally announced as the new, permanent hosts of Jeopardy!. This might be the first time a cerebral 57-year-old gameshow has caused such an online firestorm, but the reasons for the controversy go far beyond the impossible task ABC had of filling Alex Trebek’s shoes.

Since the universally beloved Jeopardy! host died in November 2020, after 37 years of helming the show, a great number of temporary hosts have been cycled in and out to keep Jeopardy! rolling. Ken Jennings, the current record holder for the longest winning streak on the show was the first, doing a six-week run. Then a hodgepodge of guest hosts followed. There were journalists like Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta; talk-show hosts including Dr. Oz, Savannah Guthrie and Robin Roberts. There were even a couple of sports types—quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Fox sportscaster Joe Buck both gave hosting a try.

But out of all of the temporary hosts, a clear fan favorite emerged: Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton. Not only does Burton have a warm-but-authoritative tone that’s similar to Trebek’s, he was not at all quiet about his desire to take over the position. When fans found out he didn’t get the job this week—even after over 267,000 of them signed a petition to make it so—many vented on Twitter.

To make matters worse, Mayim Bialik also received swift backlash as soon as it became clear that she would be hosting primetime Jeopardy! episodes and new spinoffs. Critics focused in on rumors that the Big Bang Theory star is both an anti-vaxxer and a shamer of other women.

In truth, Bialik has received the COVID-19 vaccine, along with her children. She also released a nine-minute video last October clarifying her views on vaccines. “I wrote a book about 10 years ago about my experience parenting,” she notes in the clip. “And at the time, my children had not received the typical schedule of vaccines. But I have never—not once—said that vaccines are not valuable, not useful, or not necessary. Because they are.” She continues, “The truth is, I delayed vaccinations for reasons you don’t necessarily get to know about.”

The perception of Bialik as a victim-blamer traces back to a New York Times article she wrote in October 2017, titled “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World.” In it, she detailed the downsides of not being conventionally beautiful in the public eye and entertainment industry, but went on to say that it also made her less of a target for predatory men.

In the article, Bialik was careful to note that, “Nothing—absolutely nothing—excuses men for assaulting or abusing women,” but she also made some clear judgments about women who don’t dress as chastely as her. “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress,” she wrote, “that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations … I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

Even worse, Bialik implied that more conventionally beautiful actors must be living emptier, more reckless lives than her. “If you are beautiful and sexy, terrific. But having others celebrate your physical beauty is not the way to lead a meaningful life. And if—like me—you’re not a perfect 10, know that there are people out there who will find you stunning, irresistible and worthy of attention, respect and love. The best part is you don’t have to go to a hotel room or a casting couch to find them.”

The controversial things Bialik said back then weren’t the only reason she was the number one trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon. Sony Pictures Television’s decision to hire Richards—Jeopardy!’s current executive producer—to host the daily syndicated show was interpreted by some as both gross nepotism and a flagrant example of sexism.

Many social media users were quick to bring up the fact that Richards was named in a 2012 lawsuit by Brandi Cochran—a former model on The Price is Right. During the case, Cochran detailed being harassed, sidelined and discriminated against on the gameshow for being pregnant. She specifically reported that Richards, “didn’t talk to her as frequently” once her pregnancy was revealed, and that he also implied “that she would have been one of the models fired had the pregnancy not been secret.” Cochran was ultimately awarded almost $8 million in damages.

The Jeopardy! hosting job was always going to be a tricky position to fill because of the depth of loss viewers felt with Trebek’s departure. To a lot of observers, LeVar Burton looked like a much better fit, and a less controversial choice than either Richards or Bialik. (Though his low ratings while guest hosting the show have been observed as a factor in not giving him the job, little regard seems to have been given for the fact that he was competing with the Tokyo Olympics for viewers.)

In a statement that will in no way ease the concerns of the Jeopardy! uprising online, Ravi Ahuja—chairman of global television studios and corporate development for Sony Pictures—insists that casting Richards and Bialik was by no means a casual decision. “A senior group of Sony Pictures Television executives pored over footage from every episode,” he said in a statement, “reviewed research from multiple panels and focus groups, and got valuable input from our key partners and Jeopardy! viewers.”

Ahuja also noted, “We took this decision incredibly seriously. A tremendous amount of work and deliberation has gone into it, perhaps more than has ever gone into the selection of hosts for a show—deservedly so because it’s Jeopardy! and we are following the incomparable Alex Trebek.”

Copyright 2021 KQED