AMC miniseries ‘Quiz’ is riveting look at ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ scandal

Matthew Macfadyen and Michael Sheen appear in the British miniseries “Quiz” now streaming on AMC. (Matt Frost/AMC/ITV)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Quiz' on AMC

The game show scandal is a niche genre, but it has become a personal favorite, from Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” (1994) to Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008).

Now, you can add another gem with the three-episode British miniseries “Quiz,” which aired on London’s ITV in April before hitting American television this month on AMC.

Based on the eponymous play by James Graham and the book “Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major” by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett, the show recounts the true story of Major Charles Ingram, who won £1 million on the 2001 British version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” before standing trial accused of cheating.

Emmy-nominated writer Graham (“Brexit”) paces the scripts perfectly. The setup allows us to see the TV execs brainstorming at the drawing board, inventing the lifelines of 50/50, poll the audience and phone a friend, adding dramatic lighting and music, holding their breath to see the ratings, then Disney crawling in on hands and knees to buy it.

Mark Bonnar (“Catastrophe”) sympathetically plays TV producer Paul Smith as a risk taker who suddenly feels violated that his creation is being compromised by scammers. Likewise, Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”) is charismatic as the game show host Chris Tarrant (Britain’s Regis Philbin), who is baffled at the contestant’s erratic gameplay.

We also see the evolution of the criminal plot, starting with Trystan Gravelle (“Exile”) as the obsessed Adrian Pollock, who draws suspicion by advancing to the preliminary lightning round numerous times. Turns out, he’s using an underground network of trivia researchers and even practicing on a homemade replica of the game show buzzer box.

Once Adrian fails to win the big prize, the criminal hopes turn to his sister Diana Ingram, played by Sian Clifford (“Fleabag”) with cold eyes and determined manor beneath shady turtle necks. It’s she who tries to work out a system where her brother will call in the correct answers on his cellphone, but that too fails due to a lack of cellphone signal.

Finally, she convinces her husband Charles (Matthew Macfadyen, “Pride & Prejudice”) to take the seat, working out a signal with Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson, “1917”) to cough during the right answers. Charles is painted as a reluctant anti-hero, the one who least wanted to be involved at the beginning yet the one who becomes the media focus.

Macfadyen delivers a performance reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ Charles Van Doren battling John Turturro’s Herb Stempel in “Quiz Show.” Each faced a high-angle morality moment of truth as Turturro debated whether to intentionally tank his trivia question (Best Picture 1955: “Marty”), while Fiennes debated whether to give a predetermined answer.

To me, “Quiz Show” is a perfect movie that got overshadowed by titans like “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” Even if “Quiz” doesn’t rival Redford’s masterpiece, director Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Queen”) plants seeds of foreshadowing, like Tecwen coughing the first time he meets Adrian.

If there’s one flaw, it’s the lack of closure. Did the Ingrams cheat or not? Some viewers might want tidy certainty, but it’s actually more clever this way. As written, it looks definitive one way the first time, but it’s an alternate possibility upon repeat viewings.

Either way, I guarantee you’ll binge all three one-hour episodes in one sitting thanks to the captivating cliffhangers. I suppose it’s kismet that the show is airing at the same time as a global health pandemic where we are all keenly aware of every cough around us.

This serendipitous zeitgeist is the final feather in the cap of a phenomenal TV miniseries.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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