As Pat Sajak Leaves ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ Can Ryan Seacrest Live Up to His Deliciously Old-School Hosting?

With Pat Sajak’s final appearance as host of “Wheel of Fortune,” the makeup of a daily hour of television that structures the days of millions of Americans is shifting once more.

“Wheel of Fortune” is the low-pressure option of the two famous game shows invented by the late superproducer Merv Griffin. Unlike “Jeopardy,” it’s intended to be not aspirational but accessible, with simple word-puzzle games and a department-store glamour that comforts but doesn’t dazzle. And Sajak, along with Vanna White revealing the letters, has been at its center since relatively close to the beginning; he took over from Chuck Woolery in 1981, six years into the show’s run, and has since been honored by the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest continuous stint hosting a single game show.

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His departure won’t leave a vacuum, exactly; his replacement, Ryan Seacrest, was announced in June 2023 — nearly a year before Sajak’s final show, which airs June 7. Perhaps that news was meant to forestall “Jeopardy”-style indecision: The 2020 death of Alex Trebek — an event mourned by “Jeopardy” fans who prized the host’s cerebral, witty manner — gave rise to a seemingly endless search for his replacement, one that Sony Pictures Television bobbled first by naming producer Mike Richards to the job, then by splitting duties, confusingly, between Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik. (Today, Jennings is the sole host of nightly “Jeopardy.”)

This transition is obviously different from Trebek’s — the chaos of replacing the “Jeopardy” emcee can be read, in part, as a sort of protracted mourning for a figure whose health struggles played out in public. Just plugging someone new in behind the podium might have read as disrespectful. Sajak, by contrast, is simply moving on, but the switch from him to Seacrest will make for a striking change for a show that remains indefatigably popular.

While he has other endeavors — including, for a time, tweeting about his conservative politics and writing for the right-wing National Review — Sajak’s main thing is “Wheel of Fortune.” With letter-turner White, he is the show, with his calm mien and his even-keeled bearing allowing him to function as a sort of wallpaper behind the contestants. Little differs between Sajak’s reactions when a player solves the puzzle out of nowhere or when they guess something outlandish with only a single letter left unrevealed. He’s bemused, empathetic — but only to a point. Engaged, but not overly gushy. He lets the contestants do their thing. He and White say good night to viewers at the end of each show with a warmth that never runs the risk of burning too hot; they’re pleasant with each other in the manner of longtime co-workers. They’re old pros, and there’s a certain pleasure to this vanishing sort of unflashy showmanship.

Seacrest’s main thing is being Ryan Seacrest, with all that implies: His work as a radio personality has inculcated a persona that is perennially “up,” with bounding enthusiasm and vigor. And his time at “American Idol,” which he hosts to this day, and Kelly Ripa’s “Live,” which he left in 2023, has inculcated in him a way of high-energy chatting that matches certain moments. He can volley back and forth with fellow celebrities, all of them comfortable on camera; he can comfort or celebrate a singer as they face the greatest moment of their professional life. But can he handle a somewhat lower-wattage setting? His prime-time, hypercharged energy may make for a sweaty fit on a show whose stakes, while real for the people on the stage, are slightly more human-scale.

He’s also following a broadcaster of the old school — someone for whom “Wheel” was not a side gig but the main event. And Sajak had honed his reactions well: A brutal and embarrassing wrong guess stings a bit less when the host doesn’t belabor his reaction, just allows the moment to speak for itself and keeps moving. And when a contestant wins the top prize, it’s their joy, not Sajak’s goosing the moment, that’s at the center of the frame.

The fact of a game show host being a tough job is proven by just how evident it is when people are doing it poorly. (Mike Richards, a polished and telegenic fellow, wasn’t a fit even before he was forced to step down due to controversial past remarks being uncovered.) Time will tell how the show metabolizes Seacrest; for the sake of continuity, its fans surely have to hope that White, “Wheel of Fortune’s” secret weapon, remains on board. But the fact of the show’s continued existence is owed, at least a bit, to Sajak’s continued presence, and his willingness to take on an identity tied directly and almost exclusively to one show in a way that feels unfashionable today.

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