Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Since first hearing in March that Alex Trebek was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, we’ve been bracing ourselves for the unthinkable: That somebody other than Trebek would come onto the set of “Jeopardy!” to chat up nervous contestants and punctuate each incorrect answer – sorry, Alex, I meant, “question” – with gentle, perfunctory regret.
Seriously, who else could you even imagine saying something like, “No, I’m sorry. ‘What is the placebo effect?’ is what we were after,” with Trebek’s offhand graciousness and peerless timing? Generations of schoolchildren have grown, married and matriculated into everyday “Jeopardy!” viewers with kids of their own since Trebek assumed hosting duties about 35 years and 8,000 – 8,000! – episodes ago. Living without his televised presence would be something like living without television itself.
He’s been up front with his struggles with the disease, discussing it with tactful candor and uncanny ease. The most trusted man in television since Walter Cronkite made you believe him when he said he would keep fighting and stay on the job until he was no longer able.
So, you also have to believe Trebek when he hinted to an interviewer from his native Canada last Friday that the time may be fast approaching when he can no longer carry on his hosting duties. “I will keep doing it as long as my skills do not diminish,” he told CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme. “And they have started to diminish.”
No timetable, no date, no final “Final Jeopardy” is on anybody’s immediate schedule, including Trebek’s. But he wouldn’t be implying an impending conclusion unless he suspected he had to. And he’s already told us that he soon faces another round of chemotherapy.
That he had carried on for months after his earlier announcement seemed almost like a reprieve for the rest of us, which makes this new news all the more sobering: he’s been so reliable, so persistently and consistently there for us since the Reagan administration that it would be as though we no longer had indoor plumbing or sunlight not to have him around every afternoon or evening.
His style, as with so many people who have lasted so long on television, is fretless, discreet and – befitting a “cool” medium – what more contemporary sensibilities would label, “totally chill.”
As with “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson and “60 Minutes” newsman Mike Wallace, two iconic TV figures with earlier gigs as game-show hosts, Trebek calls attention to himself by underplaying everything that has nothing to do with the job at hand.
The show will go on, one is certain.
But who else could do what he does? Trebek has ideas on possible successors. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine any of them seamlessly doing the kind of traffic-control duties entailed in guiding a “Jeopardy!” episode home in 30 minutes.
But, to revive a question posed by the title of Carson’s long-forgotten TV quiz show, whom would we trust in the same way we trust Trebek?
That’s correct, as Trebek would say. We said, “trust.” Not “trusted.” It’s not over until he says it is. Then what? Now there’s an answer we’re not yet prepared for in the form of a question.