The excellent director Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Queen”) turns AMC’s “Quiz” into a polished production with strong performances that’s always incredibly watchable. Ultimately however, I’m not exactly sure what James Graham’s script, based on his play of the same name, expects us to take away from it, and the muddled perspective sometimes hold back what could have been a stronger piece about spectacle and obsession. Somewhat surprisingly, “Quiz” casts a great deal of doubt on the case of Charles Ingram, and so ends up feeling kind of like a rehabilitation of his image and potential legal appeal more than a fascinating drama in its own right. After its broadcast in the U.K. on ITV, “Quiz” became controversial due to its unexpected defense of Ingram, and the cast has even expressed their own doubt regarding his guilt. For some reason, that version of “Quiz” is a lot less interesting. It’s hard to dig into characters and theme when a program feels uncertain about what really actually happened. However, there’s more than enough to like here, including great performances from Michael Sheen and Mark Bonnar, and a reminder when a game show took over the world.
Outside of a few scenes, “Quiz” is very cleanly divided into three chapters almost like a film with a three-act structure. The first episode, airing May 31st, is the set-up, introducing us to the two narratives. In the first, a man named Paul Smith pitches his idea for a new event series game show to ITV, a network in need of a hit. It’s fun to watch the show that would become “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” be refined in board rooms. An early iteration has less time per question before someone realizes that it’s even better to have no time limit at all and watch people work through their process. A scene in which the head of ITV kind of plays the game in his office is stellar. It’s easy even without the cameras or audiences to see why this game became a phenomenon.
At the same time, we meet an Army Major named Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen), his wife Diana (Sian Clifford), and her brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle), who becomes somewhat obsessed with translating his pub quiz skill into something that could actually make him money. He builds a “fastest finger” set-up in his garage and ends up getting to that round more than once, largely through the help of a group of fans who have figured out how to get through the selection process. Adrian finally gets on the show—although producers have noticed with a raised eyebrow that he’s been there four times already—but he doesn’t climb as high as hoped and debts are climbing. Diana takes his spot and performs largely the same. And then Charles gets his turn.
The second episode centers almost entirely on the controversial episode. Spoilers here, I suppose, but it’s a true story so you probably know already that Charles becomes the second winner of a million dollars ever and controversy starts before he even says “Final Answer” for the first time. If “Quiz” is to be fully believed, the producers of the show were suspicious while Charles was on it, hearing whispering and coughing that seemed to signal him. It’s also fascinating that Charles was one of those contestants who had to be held over to the next live show. He answers a couple questions at the end of one show and did so horribly, using lifelines early. He came back, his style had changed, and he made history. While I’m not saying for sure Ingram cheated, Paul Smith isn’t wrong when he testifies later that Ingram played like no one else ever had before.
The third episode is the trial and here’s where “Quiz” gets a little lost in the weeds. Frears and company seem way more interested in the domestic and broadcast scenes. The latter are particularly wonderful due to Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Chris Tarrant, the show’s host. Sheen can literally do anything and he increasingly feels like one of our more underrated actors. He doesn’t lean into the smarmy host thing like so many other actors would. He’s just the most entertaining guy in the room where a scandal is unfolding, someone who is himself stunned to consider that someone sitting four feet away from him could be cheating.
Some will say “Quiz” needs to be ambiguous because we don’t really know for sure if Ingram and his wife and a fellow contestant named Tecwen Whittock actually conspired to win the show, or if they just trained well and were attuned to tricks of the game that the creators hadn’t even considered. (There’s a wonderful such beat when Diana reveals one perfectly legal trick they had worked out was to listen to audience responses as you’re approaching an answer. Especially when a contestant gets to big money, a gasp from the crowd on a wrong answer could mean life or death.) However, I believe “Quiz” fully thinks that Ingram and his wife were innocent. The coughing that reportedly cued him to the right answers was just a coincidence. The way the courtroom scenes are written and directed highlight the thinness of the case against them and that the evidence was essentially created by a production already convinced of guilt.
So if “Quiz” is a case of failed justice, why not go into that harder all around? Why not present the Ingrams as the victims from the beginning? Because a lot of people don’t think they are and neither did the court. While I usually find our best drama comes from ambiguity, there is sometimes a sense, especially in true stories, that a project wants to have it both ways, to tell a salacious story of scandal and one of victims painted in the wrong light. By trying to be both, “Quiz” doesn’t feel enough like either. As entertaining as this is in the end, there can be only one final answer.
Whole season screened for review.