They recently started putting collections of Jeopardy! Episodes on UK Netflix. I’d never seen the show before (as far as I know, Netflix is the first platform to air it in Britain in any form), but I was aware of its basic premise: that it was a self-consciously “brainy” quiz show, where people who knew lots of things could win big money; that it had run for ages and was a bit of an institution in the US; that it demanded, for some reason, that all the answers must be phrased in the form of a question. I knew about some of the show’s breakout stars, like Arthur Chu and Ken Jennings. What I hadn’t been prepared for, however, was how nice it is — how resplendent with niceness everything about Jeopardy! is.
In part, Jeopardy!’s niceness comes down to its host, Alex Trebek, whose persona is as close to that of “your favorite teacher from high school” as can possibly be communicated to a mass audience on television: warm without being overly familiar; encouraging and respectful. But it’s also because Jeopardy! seems to be set in a fundamentally nicer world than the one in which we normally exist. A world in which it makes complete sense, for example, to run a regular tournament honoring public school teachers, where the games are all filmed in a big auditorium near the White House. I am told that Jeopardy!’s niceness persists behind the scenes as well. According to Joanna Mang, a one-day champion back in 2012 (and Outline contributor), everything about being on the show “is incredibly nice. The entire process of being a contestant is smooth, comfortable, and polite. The producers are enthusiastic without being smarmy or ’Hollywood-y,’ they give you good food... and answer all your questions.”
“I’ve talked to many former contestants,” Mang adds, “who all commented on how kind and personable the producers and contestant-handlers are; it must be a culture they deliberately cultivate there.”
All of which is to say: you could not possibly make Jeopardy! in the UK. We have “brainy” TV quiz shows as well — but they are not all that much like Jeopardy! The most famous is probably University Challenge, an academic quiz show based on the now-defunct U.S. College Bowl (non-televised college bowl tournaments like the National Academic Quiz Tournaments do still exist in the U.S. — indeed, they have been a bit of a nursery for Jeopardy! contestants). University Challenge occupies an iconic position in UK popular culture, in part due to its striking visual signature of the teams being shot, when the host asks the “starter” questions, to look like they’re stacked one on top of the other.
To really understand the impact of this visual, you have to place yourself in the position of the child who is watching the show, mostly baffled by the questions, with their parents — who assumes the teams have literally been stacked up like this. In the 1980s, the shot was milked for comic effect by the sitcom The Young Ones, when the cast are selected for the show, get put on top, and start kicking and pissing on the posh kids on the other team through the floor.
The two other big “brainy” UK quiz shows are Mastermind, in which individual contestants are tested on both general and specialist knowledge, and Only Connect, in which teams compete to find the “connections” between various clues. All run for most of the year, as a knock-out tournament which will eventually crown a series champion (full disclosure: in a previous life, I came frustratingly close to being a series champion on University Challenge, as part of a University of Manchester team that reached the semi-finals).
Being a series champion on one of these shows is, like winning the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, a big achievement — one that carries its own sort of prestige. But the winner of the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions earns $250,000; regular-series contestants can win even more: earlier this year, James Holzhauer made headlines after winning a combined total of $2,464,216 over a run of 33 shows. One former champion, Brad Rutter, has managed to accrue almost $5 million in prize money over the course of a long career winning various special Jeopardy! tournaments.
By contrast, none of the big “brainy” UK quiz shows offer any sort of cash prize at all. This is not just because British television production companies are poorer than their U.S. equivalents. After all, it’s certainly possible to win big money on British TV quizzes, but only the ones with questions pitched roughly at the level of the (assumed) viewer at home. If you want to win money by answering general knowledge questions on UK TV, this can’t be by knowing things that would ordinarily mark you out as somehow unusually smart. The money must be only available as a reward for luck, not swotting. The brainy quizzes must remain amateur.
Now of course, one might think: with no money on offer, this must ensure a more relaxed environment — with nothing much beyond bragging rights at stake, on these brainy quizzes, everyone can get along sportingly and have a lot more fun. This is not the case at all. While Jeopardy! is self-consciously nice, University Challenge and Mastermind are often pointlessly mean. Both are hosted by former BBC news presenters — respectively, Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys. Both hosts address contestants in the same uppity, abrupt style which characterized their political interview technique — although Paxman’s affect often noticeably softens before teams representing his alma mater, the University of Cambridge.
When Paxman introduces returning teams, he often scoffs at the knowledge they demonstrated in previous rounds, as if knowing all these things was a bit weird — before highlighting some choice wrong answers to mock them with. If a contestant buzzes in with a wrong answer on a question that Paxman thinks is really easy, his “no” will drip with patrician disdain. Meanwhile, the most memorable moments on Mastermind are when a contestant does extravagantly badly.
Only Connect is a bit nicer — certainly the host, Victoria Coren Mitchell, is usually very chummy with the contestants. But there, the teams are still discussed as if they are weird freaks of nature, obvious nerdy losers who have chosen to appear on Only Connect because they can’t really handle the real world (even if, on Coren Mitchell’s framing, this is perfectly okay). Team are forced to be party to Coren Mitchell’s constant terrible jokes about Michael Portillo, the former Tory member of parliament and current presenter of railway-based television programs; she also often asks them to sing. I can only assume that actually going on the show would feel like being trapped in the bit of your high school where all the kids who know they’re not cool and never will be hang out, self-quarantined — a loser stuck with all the other losers, forever.
Jeopardy! is set in a better world, where intellect is both encouraged and rewarded. Not so, brainy British quiz shows. Though clearly aimed at people who like facts and knowing stuff, these shows exhibit a peculiar anti-intellectualism. This anti-intellectualism is most obvious in the context of University Challenge’s annual “Christmas” tournament, where teams of “distinguished alumni” (read: very minor celebrities, emeritus professors, and people who now work at the BBC) compete to make an elaborate show of not caring about the questions, and not knowing the rules — buzzing in at completely the wrong times, conferring when they’re not supposed to, and repeating wrong answers the other team has already given.
This is not just a problem for TV quiz shows: it is symptomatic of the British ruling class’s more general attitude to knowledge, to competence, or indeed to having any particular interest in anything at all.
It is always an excruciating performance, but it’s a performance that the people competing on the show deem necessary; its roots lie somewhere deep in the British psyche. I’m not saying that the U.S. is some sort of haven of enlightened intellectualism — it is more likely that the cash prizes available on Jeopardy! serve to literalize the American myth of meritocracy. Still, there are times, in the U.S., where it is acceptable to seem like you want to show off how smart you are — but in the UK, this is never the case, even if you’re someone who’s spent their career making major breakthroughs in theoretical physics or computer science. This is not just a problem for TV quiz shows; it is symptomatic of the British ruling class’s more general attitude to knowledge, to competence, or indeed to having any particular interest in anything at all.
The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher addresses this attitude in “The Strange Death of British Satire,” an excellent essay included in last year’s k-punk collection of his writings. According to Fisher, its origins lie in the psychological defense mechanisms that must be developed by students at private boarding schools. He quotes a psychotherapist called Nick Duffell, who leads a group called “Boarding School Survivors,” as having argued that “from around the age of seven,” such boarders are “required to adopt a ’pseudo-adult’ personality, which results, paradoxically, in their struggling to ‘properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them’.”
Boarding school children “must not look unhappy, childish or foolish — in any way vulnerable — or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run.” With working-class people increasingly marginalized in British media and popular culture, we have come to “live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male” — even people from working-class backgrounds who want to succeed in public life must somehow adapt to it. Thus the “ostensible levity” of shows like the Christmas edition of University Challenge “conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved.”
Of the 48 seasons of University Challenge that have been made since 1962, teams representing the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have won 27 times — 28, if you count the 2008 to 09 series, when an Oxford team won before being disqualified for having member who had finished his studies shortly before the final was filmed. In part, this is because Oxford and Cambridge get to compete as separate colleges; of the 28 teams which qualify for every series, almost half will be from Oxbridge colleges. But really, this practice simply demonstrates the basic principle that the presenter, “Bambi,” describes to the Young Ones before they go on the show: “Well, are you going to let us win?” Rik Mayall’s character asks. “No of course not, the posh kids win, they always do.”
I simply cannot imagine any British network commissioning a self-consciously nice quiz show where very smart people get to win (potentially) vast amounts of money. But perhaps, in time, this will change. Not much coming out of the U.S. seems like the herald of a better world, but Jeopardy! does.
A lot of the time, when I’m watching Jeopardy!, I have my four month-old son on my knee. He doesn’t know any of the answers, but he does seem to get a kick out of the rhythms of the show: the colors, the sounds, the shapes; hearing his dad shout stuff at the TV (sometimes he tries to join in — “what is Morocco?” “oeeeurrrghoo!”). Who knows what he’ll grow up to be like. But if he’s raised on Jeopardy! and not just University Challenge, then perhaps he will be someone who knows what knowledge is worth.