'Quiz': TV Review

Credit: Left Bank Pictures
Ethical ambiguity served up with zippy pacing and a tremendous cast.
5/31/2020

Writer James Graham and director Stephen Frears tackle a real-life 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' cheating scandal in their AMC limited series starring Matthew Macfadyen, Sian Clifford and Michael Sheen.

The case at the center of AMC's Quiz relies heavily on confirmation bias, a barrister for the defense tells us in the finale of the three-part limited series.

That means a lot to audiences in Britain, where Major Charles Ingram and his allegedly improper Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? triumph in 2001 were the subject of breathless newspaper headlines, a wildly popular TV documentary and the James Graham play that Quiz is based upon. Quiz was a TV hit in the U.K. because of how it interacted with the facts that the audience already thought it knew.

The Quiz experience for American audiences may be closer to the roller-coaster intended by Graham and director Stephen Frears. The series is designed as a litmus test, tossing viewers from assumption to assumption, expectation to expectation — and while I don't always believe this, it's an experience that plays out with more purity if you come in knowing as little as possible. The whiplash is part of the fun and the fun is more intense if you can treat Quiz as bordering on fiction, a chain being jerked around by two excellent storytellers, facilitated by a cast of familiar faces all in top form.

The story behind Quiz doesn't even require much context, though Graham and Frears provide it. They take us back to 1997, when new ITV programming chief David Liddiment (Risteárd Cooper) took a meeting with producers Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) and David Briggs (Elliot Levey), proposing a new TV variation on the pub quiz, a straightforward trivia game with the potential to award contestants a whopping million pounds. Before Quiz even introduces its actual main characters, it's an entertaining behind-the-scenes glimpse at the development of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? from its production design to its editing to the legitimacy brought by host Chris Tarrant (Michael Sheen).

It's not a spoiler to reveal that Millionaire became a phenomenon and that the phenomenon spawned a legion of fans looking to game the process, find shortcuts to making it to the hot seat and take advantage of the show's trademark lifelines. Were these fans cheaters? Or were they merely exploiting loopholes left by producers with too much hubris to imagine anybody cracking their perfect game?

Here's where we meet Charles (Matthew Macfadyen), militarily efficient and consummately dull husband to Diana (Sian Clifford), already a pub trivia enthusiast. Diana and brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) become so obsessed with the show that they're willing to pay any price or cut any corner to make it on-air, an obsession that eventually envelops Charles as well.

So how does this all relate to a million-dollar win, a bout of suspicious coughing, the tragic unfolding of 9/11 and a court case that shocked the nation? It all plays out over three episodes that move at an energetic pace designed to generally make you want or need more — the opposite of HBO's recent McMillions, which used a somewhat similar heist/fraud structure to depict a flimflam scheme worthy of maybe two hours of screen time over six wheel-spinning installments.

For Frears, this follows in the recent fruitful TV footsteps of the tremendous A Very English Scandal and State of the Union, which played with tone and format in a way that's much more engaging than his recent features like Victoria & Abdul or Florence Foster Jenkins.

Knowing they're playing primarily to an audience that thinks it knows the truth about the scandal, Graham and Frears have structured the story as an unraveling of that truth. The first installment, beginning with the Millionaire genesis, is close to factually unimpeachable. The second installment, focused more on Charles and his apparent triumph, sticks closely to the accepted cheating narrative. The third hour, with Helen McCrory's defense attorney steering things, offers the counterfactual and raises the question of how much of what you thought was straightforward in the first two hours was only straightforward because you accepted "Charles Ingram is a cheater" from the beginning.

It's a clever construction that gets to the very root of what makes quiz shows so appealing to audiences: What's happening on TV seems like something we ordinary people could do, but that's only because of our need to believe that everything we see on TV is exactly how it appears. Frears' eye lingers on every note of artifice, the sleight of hand of editing, of sound mixing, of carefully chosen music, of ill-timed commercial breaks. It's all flashy and shiny and fundamentally fake. We accept game shows as reality, but Frears and Graham want to make clear that they're not necessarily any realer than a scripted show featuring familiar actors as our main characters.

From Pride & Prejudice to Succession, Macfadyen has proven an expert at playing shades of discomfort, and with Charles, he has a perfectly tailored character. At various points in Quiz you'll think Charles is stupid, socially awkward or just professionally rigid, and each interpretation casts its own shadow on the character and his choices. It's just as hard to pinpoint Diana's motivations, so whether she's unscrupulous and amoral or simply an enthusiast giving herself over to her new obsession remains somewhat mysterious, the ambiguity meted out carefully by Clifford.

The show's background is packed with memorable turns, including McCrory's extremely compelling presentation of a case some viewers won't want to hear; Bonnar's taut intensity as a man desperately trying to protect his cash cow; and Sheen's utter transformation behind bleached brows and a nasal reproduction of Tarrant's cadences.

My own recommendation would be to learn as little as possible about the Charles Ingram/Millionaire kerfuffle going in. Let Graham and Frears guide your perception in their smart and funny fashion, and then go do some research. It's an instructive way to consider all bias, be it concerning important issues or frivolous debates — like whether or not cheating on a game show is even a crime.

Stars: Matthew Macfadyen, Sian Clifford, Michael Sheen, Michael Jibson, Matthew Bonnar, Elliot Levey, Helen McCrory
Written By: James Graham
Directed By: Stephen Frears

Episodes air Sunday, May 31, at 10 p.m. ET/PT and June 7 and June 14 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.