ABC is putting a special spin on two of its biggest game shows this fall, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, both of which will air primetime Celebrity Editions for the next few weeks. Celebrity Wheel of Fortune is an hour-long time killer, in which contestants like Snoop Dogg fail to guess simple phrases like “A cherry on top.” But for something that instantly reminds you of a classic Saturday Night Live sketch, Celebrity Jeopardy! is much more involved—and more exciting—than it has any right to be.
That’s because, and I can say this without hyperbole: Celebrity Jeopardy! has more drama than almost anything else on TV right now.
Jeopardy! has always been a compelling watch, especially if you’re a trivia buff; it’s an educational learning experience as much as it is a nerve-wracking one. And in recent years, the venerated game show institution has only expanded its cultural cachet: Longtime host Alex Trebek died of pancreatic cancer in November 2src2src, kicking off a frenzied search for a new trivia master the following summer. That search involved former contestants who seemed like shoo-ins, beloved TV hosts who sadly didn’t pass muster, C-tier celebrities, and one executive producer who was quickly ousted for his past transgressions and terrible discriminatory comments.
It also involved history-making winning streaks from two different contestants: Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider, both of whom were nearly unstoppable last season. Schneider gained even more renown as the show’s first openly transgender winner; she went on to rack up the most wins of any female contestant ever.
All of that is to say that Jeopardy! has had a lot of eyes on it lately. Which is why Celebrity Jeopardy! both makes sense and seemed like a momentum-killer. Who wants to watch rich people win money? (Their winnings go to charity, thankfully.) And who wants to watch them try and fail to answer softball questions? (OK, not all of them are so easy.)
Turns out that I do, and you should too. Because Sunday night’s season premiere of Celebrity Jeopardy! was legitimately thrilling.
Andy Richter (of Conan O’Brien talk show fame), Ego Nwodim (SNL), and Simu Liu (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) competed for money to their chosen charity as well as a spot in the semifinals. But Liu and Nwodim were operating at a disadvantage from the start: Richter has competed in and won Celebrity Jeopardy! before.
He looked set to add another notch to his championship belt from the start, buzzing in and correctly answering the majority of the clues. And the clues weren’t all baby-level simple, either; the celebs had to demonstrate their knowledge of religion, geography, film history, and vocabulary, among other things. (No one knew what a “monkstrap” shoe was, and neither did I!)
The hour-long episode also featured “Triple Jeopardy!” for the first time in the show’s history. That meant the contestants had an extra board’s worth of clues to puzzle out, as well as the chance to win, and lose, even more money than usual. Which is how Richter entered into Final Jeopardy! boasting not only 45 correct answers, but also $21,11src to work with. That’s a lot of money, considering you can double your winnings if you play your cards right on that last clue.
Nwodim and Liu were fighting for second place at this point, greatly trailing Richter by as much as $11,srcsrcsrc. Liu spent the whole game facepalming and grousing about how badly Richter was steamrolling—at one point, he said, “I’m realizing now that I’m not the main character of this episode.” Kind of a strange way to look at your life, but that’s the level of exasperation he was feeling. Chill out, Simu, I said to my TV—Andy’s a big ol’ nerd! Let him have this!
But it’s thanks to Simu Liu that Celebrity Jeopardy! is now must-watch Sunday night television. The clue for Final Jeopardy! was about the world’s smallest landlocked country, both size-wise and population-wise. I had no clue what the answer was, and neither did Nwodim, who bet all her money on “Togo???????” (Emphasis hers.)
Then, to the shock of both him, me, and his competitors, Liu got it right: Vatican City. He’d guessed that in an earlier round, and it stayed on his mind, he explained. And because he was feeling hopeless about his chances at winning, he bet all of his money, which meant he went from standing in second place with $11,6srcsrc to first place with $23,2srcsrc.
Damn, OK, hunny! Too bad Richter could easily best him, if he got it right and bet at least $2,2srcsrc. But Richter did not get it right. He guessed Liechtenstein for, yes, $2,2srcsrc—bringing him down to $18,9srcsrc and planting him in second place.
Reader, I gasped. Liu gasped. Host Mayim Bialik probably gasped. Andy Richter, favorite to win the whole dang competition, was out in the first episode. And Simu “Just a Side Character” Liu was moving onto the semi-finals.
The look of shock that spread across his face is unforgettable. In fact, Simu Liu memorialized it himself in a post-show tweet.
If this is the drama that happened in just the first episode, what more lies ahead? I will absolutely be watching every Sunday night to find out.