O'Donnell: 'Jeopardy!' James Holzhauer overcomes everything but Ken Jennings as Night One of ABC's 'Super Series' soars

  • James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter appear on the set of "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time," in Los Angeles. The all-time money winners are competing in a rare prime-time edition of the show. The first to win three shows gets $1 million.

    James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter appear on the set of "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time," in Los Angeles. The all-time money winners are competing in a rare prime-time edition of the show. The first to win three shows gets $1 million. Eric McCandless/ABC via AP

Updated 1/8/2020 7:47 PM

THE "BIG GAME" PRODUCTION VALUES were about as imaginative as a poinsettia inside a toll booth.

And Naperville's wonder-buzz James Holzhauer had all the luck of a tour company booking 2020 travel to Iran.


But Night One of ABC's grand "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time" dominated Tuesday among Americans still watching legacied TV, drawing 14.4 million viewers as the evening's top-rated show.

That audience also clocked in as the fourth-largest non-sports offering in prime-time during the 2019-20 TV season.

It trailed only "The Golden Globes" (NBC), "The Little Mermaid" (ABC) and the season premiere of Nick Cannon and "The Masked Singer" (Fox).

With as many as five more nights scheduled to run beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday, "J!-GOAT" may prove that there is actually still a reasonable thirst for shared intellectual engagement among a nation constantly drained of communal spirit.

As for Holzhauer, he kept his beamy cool to the very end before losing the doubleheader match to Ken Jennings by a mere 63,400-63,200 points.

Brad Rutter -- a rank outsider in the morning line -- finished a distant third. But he played a steady role of spoiler, landing 4 of the night's 6 Daily Doubles while converting only 1.

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If any single factor beat Holzhauer, it was his inability to snag a Daily Double in any of the four rounds.

The DD's have been his bread-and-blitzkrieg during two mammoth 2019 runs on "Jeopardy!"

Jennings got the other 2, including an $8,600 net early in Game 1 "Double Jeopardy!" that gave him a lead that held to the wire.

All due props to Jennings, who repeatedly answered -- or correctly questioned -- Holzhauer's steady ground game and once again played like a hungry software engineer trying to escape Salt Lake City.

As for the executive producer Harry Friedman and Sony Pictures Television, the presentation could have benefitted from far more time in The Imagineering Department.

For example, why not juice the spectacular feel with periodic analysis from an odd couple of "experts." (Tiffany Haddish and Noam Chomsky? Bill Maher and Neil deGrasse Tyson? Ruta Lee and Dan Rather?)



• Too many clues were too wordy; Clues that require two screens are considered outright blasphemy by "Jeopardy!" classicists;

• Celebrity-driven video clues were overused and in general far too distracting; an inadvertent comedic peak came when Luke Bryan sounded way too much like Gomer Pyle at the Marines Corp recruiting office while offering an answer about Elvis Presley's memorable 1973 NBC TV special "Aloha from Hawaii";

• Some category titles strained to be "clever"; simple is always better.

But in the end, Night One of "J!-GOAT" showed once again that there will always be a segment of smart populace who enjoy watching extremely accomplished people endeavoring to do something very well under ambient pressure.

Holzhauer, Jennings and Rutter did not disappoint,

Even if it is one expert's opinion -- ahem, thank you Steve Dahl, Garry Meier and Dan Falato -- that "Jeopardy!" James remains a 2-5 favorite to win it all.

STREET-BEATIN': It might be enough to get someone thrown out of downtown Arlington Heights for the rest of the winter, but it's not a good weekend to bet Jimmy Garoppolo and the Forty-Niners (minus-7) over Minnesota Saturday (NBC, 3:35 p.m.; Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth). Sometimes young playoff teams need one spin around the track before hitting their best stride. ...

A growing cadre of experts are insisting Brad Underwood and Illinois have leapfrogged DePaul as the in-state team most likely to land an NCAA at-large bid in March. Baller-of-confusion Charlie Moore and the blue hedgehoppers face a perilous extended weekend out east at St. John's (Saturday, 11 a.m.; FSN, AM-670) and Tuesday night at Villanova. ...

As suggested previously, no great surprise about Steve Stone's return to the White Sox TV booth. (He's both a longtime favorite of Jerry Reinsdorf and a Cleveland-area native of the right age to remember when Ernie Anderson's historic "Ghoulardi" debuted on WJW-TV.) ...

Kevin Cross and listing NBCSCH continue to scurry after the departure of the Cubs. Now the challenged regional sports network is leaning on some old media chums to try and tap out Spam-a-lot excitement about a remodeling and new sets. (Free cheese for the mice would also be pretty bold; sharper programming would be even better.) ...

Evanston's very own Cassidy Hubbarth will serve as an ESPN reporter for "The Celebrity All-Star Game" from Wintrust Arena during the NBA's big weekend next month. (Rosters are being finalized; Barack Obama would be a tremendous "get" for the exhibition.) ...

Andy Masur and Dave Eanet alternated as sportsmen during the opening days of Bob Sirott's fresh morning show on WGN-AM (720) this week. (Eanet missed programs because of Northwestern basketball travel; the well-seasoned Sirott needs to understand that his key new cues are "hip," "breezy" and "avuncular.") ...

And, after his snark-tank turn as host of "The Golden Globes," Ricky Gervais should be booked to play a mandatory lunch in the executive wing of Halas Hall: "Understand, a titan builds the empire and then all subsequent generations become increasingly irrelevant," he might say. "So take your laminated T-formation back to the time tunnel where it belongs."

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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