This Is Fine. is Broadly's weekly newsletter about the previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing. In this week's letter, Gabby Noone discusses the brain-soothing and -expanding powers of everyone's grandma's favorite television show: Jeopardy! Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy from Broadly and This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.
The Kennedy family reputedly groomed their children to become intellectuals by having them research current events and historical trivia and debate one another at the dinner table, which honestly sounds exhausting. Thank god my family understood that tuning into Jeopardy! each night basically had a similarly brain-expanding effect.
My childhood dinners were consumed at approximately 7 PM each night as we yelled answers to Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek’s place inside the TV on our kitchen counter. Regardless of how much homework I had, whether I was puking my guts out from the stomach flu, or if I’d just had a screaming match with my sister over whose turn it was to use our shared Conair flat iron, this was always my family’s time to leave it all behind us and come together for the love of the game.
If you’re not familiar with the decades-old show, Jeopardy! works like this: Three contestants play a quiz game that consists of three rounds. The first two rounds feature six categories which each contain five clues with dollar values corresponding to their difficulty. If you get the correct answer, the money is added to your score. If you get it wrong, the money is taken away—you can even go into disqualifying debt. This gives a much-needed discipline to the game: There is little room for uneducated guesses.
The categories are sometimes titled straightforwardly (Lakes and Rivers), but usually involve corny puns (A Matter of Wife & Death). There’s also a recurring category called Potpourri where random clues are dumped. After Alex reads a clue, the first contestant to ring in using a hand-held device gets a few seconds to say the correct answer, which they have to phrase in the form of a question. Like, if you were to pick Places at the Mall for $600, the resulting clue might be, “An iconic Galleria bag or a black nylon backpack is a “must-have” from this very upscale Italian brand,” the correct answer would be “What is Prada?” See! It’s fun! What is Prada?!
I love everything about Jeopardy! I love how the contestants try to subtly exert their personalities by way of how they write their names on the digital displays on the fronts of their podiums, or their choice of jazzy blouse or tie. I love how the set never looks quite up to date, no matter how many times the show’s hardworking graphic design team changes the color pallette from one gradient of computer screensaver blue to another, slightly more purplish shade of computer screensaver gradient blue.
I especially love how, in order to win the game, you cannot just be any nerd, but a nerd who also pays attention to the more lowbrow parts of our culture. You can’t get to 74-time consecutive champion, information-retaining machine, and Mormon icon Ken Jennings’ level by knowing only all the world’s major bodies of water or the elements of the periodic table. You need also to know that “jeggings” is a portmanteau for jeans and leggings. If you hear, “In the 1990s, this New York native had eight of her first 10 Billboard Top 40 hits reach No. 1,” and do not answer, “Who is Mariah Carey?” you will not win Final Jeopardy. It’s thrilling to see an elderly professor in a tweed suit correctly answer, “What is Vanderpump Rules?” seconds after sweeping a category on Greek architecture.
I even love to hate sentient JoS A. Bank mannequin Alex Trebek. Without his tendencies to awkwardly respond to contestants’ heartfelt anecdotes and condescendingly congratulate women contestants when they get the right answers, the show would be too perfect. Where else would I target my anger over missing a clue I knew the answer to, if not at Alex correcting someone for mispronouncing a French word like he’s a college junior just back from a semester abroad?
Despite my appreciation for the show (and extreme dislike of its host), I fell out of my Jeopardy! routine when I moved away for college since I no longer had a TV or predictable everyday schedule. Jeopardy! became a treat I could only partake in when I came home for the holidays, taking on the same elusive quality as Stove Top stuffing: It was an essential part of my childhood, but making it a priority as I went out on my own in the world felt a little ridiculous. Racing home to watch TV at 7 PM was something you did in the suburbs where nothing else was going on, not a part of my new, very sophisticated metropolitan lifestyle.
Now, though, I’m an adult, which feels more chaotic than I imagined it would. Not in an, “Adulting is hard! Where do I even buy groceries?” kind of way—I expected chores and bills and career anxiety, but didn’t anticipate the everyday stream of new and unusual reasons to worry that my future will be obliterated by a climate disaster or nuclear war incited by a meatloaf-brained president. Maintaining my routines, like cooking a big meal on Sundays and changing my nail polish on Mondays, keeps me from totally clawing at the walls. Upon recently discovering I could stream old episodes of Jeopardy! on Netflix, I’ve revived my childhood habit and made a dinnertime episode essential to my sanity, too.
There is nothing more calming to me than arriving home from work, changing into my pajamas, microwaving the leftovers of whatever last came up when I searched “casserole” on Pinterest, and competing with my boyfriend as we watch an episode of Jeopardy! The perfectly organized chaos of each episode soothes me: The clues, the answers, and the contestants are always a surprise, but I know they'll be contained within a handful of categories over a half hour. I often go through my day wondering if I accidentally poured Dumb Bitch Juice into my coffee instead of oat milk, but when I sweep a category of questions called Green Vegetables, answering, “What is kohlrabi?” while all of that day’s contestants remain silent, my confidence in my intellect is restored.
One episode of Jeopardy! a night is just the right amount for me. I never want to binge-watch it—neither my mind nor the show itself was designed for such purposes. Unlike the nightly news, it is the perfect dose of escape, where the mass of the world’s topics are tidily placed in actual boxes with cute titles. But: Escape in large quantities just becomes ignorance. I wouldn’t know any of the correct answers if I didn’t actually pay attention to the world around me, too.
It’s easy to get caught in the here-and-now of everything, as though the end of civilization has arrived because Facebook keeps giving away everyone’s data like free orange chicken samples at the mall food court. And maybe it has! But watching Jeopardy! every day reminds me that the history of the world is so much bigger than that, and it is so beautiful, so intricate, so evil, and also sometimes so totally boring. I am hopeful there’s plenty of time for more history to be made, but even if there isn’t, at least I can feel at peace that future alien descendents could learn about us by discovering footage of Alex Trebek and wondering, What is up with this guy?
I tell myself that one day I will pass the Jeopardy! online test and make it onto the show—but, honestly, I’m doubtful that will happen, because my brain refuses to accept geography as a concept. Still, I file away new facts I learn from Jeopardy! and the wider world into a mental folder. I listen intently when other people share rambling stories or otherwise useless-seeming information with me—not because I think it will someday earn me a monetary reward on the show, but because it’s just the right thing to do.
Unlike Jeopardy!, the world at large assigns more value to some kinds of knowledge over others, but that doesn’t mean I should. I want to know everyone’s sweep category; the small things they are obsessed with; the otherwise random topic that they would absolutely dominate. You know how Nora Ephron said, “Everything is copy?” I think everything is Potpourri.