In 2001, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was not just a popular program, it was a cultural icon. The game show, which originated in Britain in 1997, became a mega-phenomenon across the globe. As chronicled by the ITV miniseries Quiz, airing on AMC in the U.S., the show’s format was something special from the very start. The response to it was as well. Fans began talking with one another, scheming even to get in the audience and compete for a chance at the hot seat. And, allegedly, three of them conspired to “steal” the one million pound prize in an extraordinary manner: coughing. It was a major scandal, and yet, one that was almost immediately forgotten because the day after it happened, it was 9/11.
Of course, living in a time of coronavirus makes all of the coughing on the show feel especially tense, but Quiz—written by James Graham and directed by Stephen Frears—makes this reenactment reverberate emotionally as well. Weaving its story among three different timelines and perspectives, Quiz (running a mere three hourlong episodes) is fair to all involved, which is not a small thing when there is so much to potentially lampoon. The tone is light and whimsical from the start (cheeky even), because while this is fraud, it’s not necessarily life or death. The miniseries wisely lets its story speak for itself, without making fun of or being mean-spirited towards the eccentric but unexpectedly endearing Ingrams.
What Quiz is, above all, is an acting showcase. Matthew MacFadyen (Succession) and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) star as the otherwise ordinary, middle-class couple in question, Charles and Diana Ingram, who plot to get onto the quiz show. More accurately, it begins with Diana’s oddball brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) who—along with his sister and father—are pub quiz fanatics. As Celador producer Paul Smith (Catastrophe’s Paul Bonnar) says of the brand-new Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? format: “Everybody loves a good pub quiz, a uniquely British invention that combines our love of drinking and being right.”
But the mania that surrounded this unique game show and its special, alchemical popularity was something else altogether. Adrian is interested in, but ultimately declines, the assistance of a group of super fans known as “The Syndicate,” who help get players onto the show. At a time when the internet was still nascent thing, these fans had phone tree networks across the country, and sometimes delivered information in person. But phones were also how the show made its money, as millions of people called in to paid lines for their chance to win cash.
Just like so many competition series now, one of the things that made Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? so compelling were the stories of the people who dreamed of winning a life-changing amount of money. There is a quiet desperation that Quiz also captures that the original series capitalized on. The first episode could really be called “The Anatomy of a Hit,” as it investigates how the show was made and the adjustments that brought it to its final form (it was originally titled “Cash Mountain,” for example—a terrible moniker). But the producers were also naive. They didn’t see, at first, the growing tide of people wanting to exploit the show’s weaknesses. Still, producers did notice that Adrian appeared in the talent pool five times and the show once, while his sister also won a spot to compete, and then her husband did. But the person who, seemingly, had the least knowledge and the least interest in the whole competition—Charles—was the one who won a million pounds. It was an unlikely, strange road, and one that immediately raised red flags with those behind the scenes.
From there, Quiz is part legal drama and part heart-racing road to Charles’ winning on that fateful night, which will actually put you on the edge of your seat despite knowing what comes next. It’s a testament to the original series’ captivating formula and the way that Quiz is able to replicate it as a show-within-a-show. But it’s also because Quiz makes you genuinely care about the Ingrams, and after their barrister (an exceptional Helen McCrory) gives a well-reasoned and fully logical case for why the Ingrams didn’t cheat, you can’t help but be in doubt—something that seems to be shared by the show’s depiction of the Millionaire’s producers.
There is a lot of gray area to explore in Quiz in terms of cheating, and what is actually illegal versus what is against the spirit of the game. One of the leaders of the Syndicate says near the end of the series that quiz masters are becoming a relic of the past. Google and other search engines making knowledge so readily available is ostensibly a good thing, in terms of having the answer to any tangible question right at your fingertips. But with a darker prognostication, he notes: “the bottom is falling out of the truth market.” As we now know, the legitimacy of information in this bizarre, post-fact world is not always clear.
For Britons, Quiz will surely hit differently than in the U.S. The case is more obscure here, and we aren’t as familiar with UK presenter Chris Tarrant, for example (a wonderful Michael Sheen). But we do know the show’s format, and how it worked (or seemed to), and there’s something very fun about seeing such a familiar property examined through the lens of another country’s experience with it. In Quiz, when ITV’s new head of programming arrives in 1997 and says he wants to focus on event television, he notes that people just want to gather to experience something together. It’s a bittersweet reminder of something that doesn’t happen much anymore, especially at a time when neither we (nor the athletes or entertainers we watch) are able to gather safely at all. But at least we can, and should, watch Quiz.
Quiz premieres Sunday, May 31st on AMC.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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