Dec 22, 2016

Channel Surfing: Jeopardy! - The Cindy Stowell Episodes

Left to right: Alex Trebek and Cindy Stowell
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
For many, 2016 has been a year full of disappointments. Whether it's in the passing of various celebrities, the presidential election, bad movies, or other world events; it's almost too easy to call this year "the worst ever." There's so much darkness in the world that the chances of a silver lining appearing are becoming a laughable offense. However, there was one thing over this past week that may make the world a brighter, more inspiring place. It doesn't come from anyone that you likely know. In fact, it's not even on a show known for producing great personalities (except for Ken Jennings). What happened on the quiz show Jeopardy! between December 12-21 was not only inspiring, but proof that kindness exists in many forms.
It's a story that seemed to be written ahead of time. Contestant Cindy Stowell was 41 and suffering from untreatable terminal colon cancer at the time that her episodes were taped this past August. She died a week before her first episode aired (she would appear on seven episodes). The story made the news, though few knew certain details. Would she be able to become a champion, even for one day? How far would she go? Considering her state, what would she do with her winnings? All of these questions were answered in time, but created a mystery that is stranger than fiction, and made Jeopardy! the most exciting that it had been since Ken Jennings' ridiculous winning streak.
None of her competitors knew about the cancer. Save for a touching tribute that host Alex Trebek did (filmed after her death), it wasn't brought up; instead choosing to focus on what made her interesting as a person. She was asked about her interests in sports and knitting. Anyone who had missed the news story would be forgiven for not realizing that they were watching one of the most interesting underdog stories in recent game show history. Her first day saw her go up against Tim Aten: the champion who had won seven days straight going into that first night. In fact, he was a dominating force for most of the episode with Stowell even falling into the negative at points. The chances of her having any redemptive story seemed to have been a pipe dream.
Then there was Final Jeopardy: the question that often determined the winner based on a player-selected wager. While not in the lead going in, she managed to get the question right in the face of two dominating competitors. Thanks to a crafty wager, she came from behind and won the game. Stowell was now a hero for underdogs in more ways than one. She wasn't just a shining beacon for those wanting to follow their dreams (hers was to be on Jeopardy!), but that someone could come from behind to be a victor, let alone against an indomitable champion. The question soon became how far she could go. One day was lucky. Anything beyond that was skill.
As her story progressed, the reports came out, giving clarity to who Stowell was. Articles discussed how she would donate a portion of her winnings to cancer research. Many applauded her for being able to play given her condition. Whatever the case may be, her seven days on the show became an unexpected media event. She wasn't just a fan who got to be on the show. She was someone whose generosity transcended her condition; being able to be judged on her skill and interests. She wasn't a weakling in the ring of Jeopardy!, she was - as the show likes to call them - a champion. Not only was she a champion who won for six days straight, but she managed to earn $103,801 over that time, thus qualifying her for the even more prestigious Tournament of Champions. While her story ended before she got to the big leagues, it's heartwarming to know that she not only got to be on the show but also got to be among the best of the show.
While Stowell is no longer alive, her legacy evolved as the show aired. She became a hero for donating money to cancer research. She became a hero for her modesty. She became a hero for following her dreams. These are all things that most people have when appearing on Jeopardy!, but few have quite the same narrative as she did. She did get to see some of the episodes before her passing thanks to the producers giving her a DVD. However she could never see the impact that her generosity made over those days. While it's a story that could be read as tragic, it's one full of achievement and hope. If this world gave more opportunities like this, maybe it would be harder to see the world as a bad place. In fact, it might reflect the best in humanity. Even the man who won on that seventh day, Sam Scovill, wrote a loving message on Twitter asking viewers to support cancert treatment.
This is especially true from day one. When she was approved for competition, she asked the producers to let her play as early as possible for fear of her cancer causing problems. She got that opportunity because of generosity to break the protocol, just this once. It would be tough to imagine what would've happened if the cards fell differently. What if she had played a few weeks later and lost? What if she died before even getting on? These are questions that only make the event seem all the more miraculous. It's evidence that there's moments in life that are too inexplicable for words. It's just weird that it happened on a show known for being rewarded for saying the right ones.

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