Austin Rogers is the 'Jeopardy!' champion we deserve

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Photo: Jeopardy!

Because it is the most engaging game show on TV — our egg-headiest entertainment — Jeopardy! inspires intense interest in any winner who sustains victory over a number of days. The newest Jeopardy! sensation is an unusual one: Austin Rogers, whose nine-day winning streak has netted him more than $300,000 in prize money. Rogers, a New York City bartender, has a wuffly beard and mussed hair that looks like it’s trying to escape from his head. He favors brown corduroy attire that, along with his deadpan murmur of a voice, makes him seem like a visiting professor from the University of Eccentricity.

Rogers messes with the Jeopardy! format. When announcer Johnny Gilbert introduces each contestant at the top of the show, it’s most common for the player to smile hugely and stare vacantly at the camera. Rogers, by contrast, uses those seconds to do little pantomimes, such as pretending to uncork a wine bottle, or solve a Rubik’s Cube puzzle. In the heat of the game, everyone concentrates fiercely on giving the correct answer. Austin, however, finds these moments opportunities to editorialize. My favorite example of this occurred when the correct answer was the rock band the Eagles. Rogers buzzed in correctly but gave the band’s name a sour, mwah-mwah intonation. Host Alex Trebek picked up on this immediately. “You don’t like the Eagles?” Trebek asked. Rogers shook his head vigorously no, as though this was the most logical response possible. Jolly good for Austin.

As you might expect, Austin Rogers is a polarizing figure in Jeopardy! fandom. Many viewers prefer the quiet, firm, buttoned-up precision displayed by the all-time-great Jeopardy! champ, Ken Jennings. To these fans, Rogers is show-offy and distracting.

Other viewers are delighted with Austin’s hijinks, finding him an interesting combination of fierce competitor and joker. His fans even include Jimmy Fallon: What could be more logical than hearing that the hard-drinking Tonight Show host has found and befriended Rogers in the bar where Austin works? Of course, Austin is no Ken Jennings — yet. Jennings won 74 games in a row, and if I had to wager, I’d guess Rogers will not last beyond this week. Why? Because the very thing that makes him such an exciting contestant — his unpredictability, both in how he answers and in his seemingly devil-may-care betting method — do not foretell a firm-and-steady ascent. Austin Rogers is tossing the Jeopardy! playbook in the air, upsetting the natural order of things. In this, he overlaps with what is happening in political and pop culture right now. He is at once a welcome escape from our current reality, and, inevitably, a product of it.

Jeopardy! airs weeknights. Check your local listings.

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