Ask Matt: Ken Jennings and ‘Jeopardy!,’ ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary’ Hiatus, ‘WandaVision,’ ‘This Is Us,’ ‘The Stand’ & More
Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic — also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist” — Matt Roush, who’ll try to address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. (We know background music is too loud, but there’s always closed-captioning.)
One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won’t be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it’s already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush). Look for Ask Matt columns on many Tuesdays and Fridays.
Who’s a Proper Guest Host for Jeopardy?
Matt Roush: Maybe eventually he will be, but no one’s rushing to make that call just yet, and I understand why. Everything the show’s producers are doing right now is intended to keep the show going while honoring the memory of their legendary and beloved host, who passed away in the middle of the season’s production. By choosing Ken Jennings, who had already come aboard the show as a consulting producer and occasional category presenter, to be the initial guest host for the first weeks, they were smart to focus on continuity. In many ways, Jennings is second only to Alex as being the face and ambassador for the show, which he so obviously loves. His reverence and respect for Alex, the contestants and the game were apparent from his first episode, which excuses any signs of nervousness or other aspects of his steep learning curve. I was impressed by his rapport and empathy with the contestants (in whose shoes he has been), and I’m looking forward to seeing how some of the other announced celebrity guest hosts will do as the season progresses. The one thing Jeopardy! is trying not to project is the sense that this is some sort of bake-off contest with the winner getting the job. That, too, is appropriate.
Comment: I appreciated your review of Ken Jennings’ first episode of hosting Jeopardy! I have read a LOT of comments complaining of his performance last night. But here’s my take and I’d like to see if you agree. During some of the rewinds of classic episodes over the last six months, they aired Alex Trebek’s first episode. He spoke in clipped, rushed sentences just as Ken did on his first night. He didn’t have the ease with the contestants on letting them know wrong or right just as Ken did. Perhaps Alex did have a better “voice” on that first night, but only marginally. Comparing anyone’s first night/week of hosting to Trebek’s last decade will cause anyone to suffer in comparison. Whether Jennings is the right fit or someone else with more broadcasting chops, that remains to be seen. I’d like to know what you think. — David, Houston, Texas
Matt Roush: Here’s a thought: Don’t read comments, especially if you’re enjoying something. (Nothing harshes a buzz faster than visiting a troll farm.) Ken Jennings may not have had a perfect start, or will ever be some fans’ perfect choice, but as I expressed in my review and earlier in this column, he was the right guy to go to under the circumstances and he’s holding up quite well. I miss Alex, and I’m always grateful when Ken finishes an episode by thanking him. My only constructive criticism, after watching Ken for nearly two weeks, is that I’d prefer him not to recap everyone’s dollar totals at the end of the round unless there’s a purpose to it: someone doing spectacularly, or when they’re all within reach of each other. Just laying out where the game stands is enough. Otherwise, I couldn’t agree more that rushing to judgment is the opposite of what’s called for in this situation.
Zoey, Don’t Go!
Question: I saw that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist will go on a hiatus of an unspecified period beginning Feb. 16 to make room for a pair of sitcoms. As far as you know, is this production-related due to COVID or is it just that NBC wants to schedule the other shows? Considering that the show just came back and has had its ratings up this season on Tuesdays, it’s a bit alarming. I hope the hiatus doesn’t dent the momentum. Last year (when they finished shooting before COVID hit) we got an uninterrupted run, with the exception of the two-month break between the pilot and the second episode. — Jake
Matt Roush: This seems to me less a pandemic-related decision (as opposed to Tuesday-night neighbor This Is Us going into repeat mode for a few weeks because of production shutting down in Los Angeles during the latest surge) than a pure programming call. It’s not optimum to have a show stop airing after just six episodes — though that sort of thing has been happening a lot this season, which is hardly a normal TV year by anyone’s standards — but again, these aren’t ordinary sitcoms. They’re big-name vehicles for Dwayne Johnson (Young Rock) and SNL star Kenan Thompson (Kenan), and however they turn out, I get why NBC wants to give them a prominent midseason shot. (Why theyre not airing on Thursdays, where NBC comedies usually roost, is another matter.) I was encouraged that in NBC’s release announcing the scheduling, they made an effort to praise Zoey‘s ratings performance since its return and promised it would be back in the spring. Not going to lose sleep over this one just yet.
Hooray for Marvel’s WandaVision!
Comment: I read your review on WandaVision, which couldn’t have been more positive, and decided to give it a shot. So much fun to watch! It’s a very different kind of Marvel show or any show for that matter. There is no way a show like this would have survived on broadcast the way Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. managed for seven exciting seasons or even Marvel’s Agent Carter (very underrated for 2 seasons). I recently binged on all of the fantastic Marvel shows and movies via Disney +. My favorite movie is Captain America: Winter Soldier. I love how Agent Carter is a direct spinoff of the Captain America movies. Also enjoyed watching the prequel to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which is Captain Marvel. Fun, Fun, Fun! — Fred
Matt Roush: Fun’s the word, all right, which is why I didn’t hesitate to gush over something so meticulously, cleverly and lovingly produced. The fact that it’s different from anything in the Marvel camp is another reason why I embraced it. I’m not the Marvel fan you are by a long shot, and I fear that the moment WandaVision drops its sitcom-homage façade (if it does) and becomes more of a Marvel series, my interest level will begin to fade — though Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany have drawn me in to such a degree that I’m willing to be surprised.
This Is a Puzzling Nomination
Question: I recently saw the Critics Choice Awards TV nominations and was confused. How do the critics justify nominating Justin Hartley as a supporting actor on This Is Us? He’s clearly a lead on the show and it seems unfair to take a spot from true supporting actors. I get that he would never beat out Sterling K. Brown in the lead category. What are your thoughts? — Rob
Matt Roush: Much like the Emmys, the nominations are largely guided by where the actor and/or his or her reps choose to place them. But yes, I agree that Justin Hartley’s role has developed into one of the true leads, whereas Milo Ventimiglia has become more of a true supporting character (however invaluable, and there are exceptions in some episodes). Hartley very well might have made the cut in the lead category if he’d been submitted for it, and who can say who’ll win? That’s a tough field, with The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor, Better Call Saul‘s Bob Odenkirk having maybe his best season, Ozark‘s Jason Bateman, Lovecraft Country‘s Jonathan Majors, and Perry Mason‘s Matthew Rhys. Hard to know who to vote for with all of that talent.
Not Standing for It
Comment: I know Stephen King‘s The Stand wasn’t exactly an optimistic story to begin with (either through the book or the 1994 telemovie) but this new version is just so glum, depressing and dull. Five episodes in and the pacing is slow and confusing, I am yet to find a character to connect with (there’s just so many and nobody has a personality) and all I keep thinking is: Am I watching Under the Dome 2? A lot of good actors are wasted — hello Whoopi Goldberg, Greg Kinnear, just to name a few — and those in the spotlight are robotic in their acting throughout. Why, why, why did they have to ruin this phenomenal story? This is just cookie-cutter pedestrian storytelling, backed with “look at our cool soundtrack” choices and really lazy writing. Just kill them all off and call it a day. – Benji
Matt Roush: I’m no fan of this adaptation either — check out my review — but I’m not sure I feel this nihilistic about it. (I will watch the finale, for which Stephen King himself has written a new coda, but otherwise can’t really recommend it.) As we’ve learned over the decades, King’s stories don’t always adapt well to film and TV, and heaven (or hell as the case may be) knows many have tried: some successful, some controversial, many forgettable. It has been a long time since I saw ABC’s miniseries version, but I remember it being more gripping than this remake, which I described as feeling “more like a crawl than a stand.” I’m used to being disappointed by King on screen — did you even try to watch that series version of The Mist? — but if this guides people back to the book, maybe it didn’t “ruin this phenomenal story” after all.
The Stand‘s Timing, Undoing‘s Unraveling
Question: I am curious to your thoughts on two new shows over the last few months: HBO’s The Undoing and CBS All Access’ The Stand. First with The Stand: I totally get that the show was made just before the pandemic, but isn’t it a bit irresponsible and a bit immoral to prey on people’s fears by showing a show were 99% of the population dies from a virus? A lot of shows and movies are being delayed, so why couldn’t they wait until at least the pandemic shows some recovery? Instead, it’s premiering in the midst of the worst crisis the U.S. has experienced in a century. The show itself is hollow, depressing and a bit vulgar, and I can’t see it lasting more than a season or so, but still, pretty cruel move by CBS there. I felt the show to be mean-spirited.
The Undoing has been a great experience: polished, superbly acted, a great treat. However, I am left wondering why wasn’t this just a long movie? It had a lot of unnecessary padding from episodes 2 to 5. I can’t recall the last time I felt so strongly that this should have been a great HBO movie, not a mini-series/TV show. — Benjamin L
Matt Roush: First off, to clarify: The Stand, like The Undoing, is a limited series, so there won’t be future seasons. For me, the bigger issue isn’t that it exploits the pandemic but that it isn’t exciting or interesting enough to leave much of an impression at all. The timing is unfortunate and can be seen as tasteless, but I wasn’t surprised when CBS didn’t shelve it — especially after streaming viewership of movies like Contagion spiked early on during the crisis. (We humans are curious creatures.)
As for The Undoing: The real problem might not have been its length but the scheduling of each episode with a week in between. When I screened this for my review (with only the final episode held back — I later felt that might have been because it turned out to be so anticlimactic), I watched the first five hours over just a few days, eagerly anticipating the next episode. I sometimes feel that truly indulgent longform series would have been more effective as a movie, but this wasn’t one of them. And while I’m not always a fan of the binge-watching model — in fact, I think it hurts more shows than it helps — when it comes to limited series, I’m reminded of how satisfying it used to be when networks ran a multi-part miniseries (like The Thorn Birds) over a week’s time, building interest by the night. The Undoing performed well for HBO, and the story’s page-turning twists justified its episodic nature for me — but if I’d had to live with it for six whole weeks, maybe I’d have been frustrated, too.
And Finally …
Question: I am not a huge fan of The Bachelor, but I did watch part of the new season’s premiere. What safety precautions are they taking if any? How long does it take them to film a whole season? I have stayed at the gorgeous Nemacolin Woodland Resort in Pennsylvania before and wondered how they happened to choose it to film at? Have they taken over the whole resort? — Mary P
Matt Roush: For a non-fan, you’re certainly curious. I’m even less of a fan than you are, but my understanding is that since the pandemic, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have filmed on location and in isolation in a bubble, with cast and crew in quarantine for several weeks before production even begins, with everyone being frequently tested. The current season reportedly filmed in October and November, wrapping just before Thanksgiving, and filming on the resort (which had been seen in previous seasons, so was already familiar to producers) was contained to a specific part of the property called Arden Estates. Still, I’m not sure this sort of social non-distancing is wise, either in 2020 or 2021.
That’s all for now. Remember that we can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below. (Please include a first name with your question.)