It’s hard to imagine a time when a television show had the power to dominate an audience, so much so that it was on five days a week and was an event every single day. Maybe it’s easier to envision now in a post-pandemic world, or because our love of recent nostalgia still looms large. But in 1998, when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” became a smash in England, the world looked very different. Personal computers and the internet were gaining traction, but it wasn’t easy to put a question in Google and find an answer. Maybe that’s the problem with watching this narrative treatment of the show’s creation and the cheating scandal that would….eventually….do something to it?
Because you can Google everything about what “Quiz” shows over its three episodes it only illustrates how truncated and basic Frears’ drama is. With each episode comprised of about 45 minutes of content, give or take, it’s hard not to feel like you’re either missing a few beats or the story just simply isn’t that interesting, which is a shame because Frears is usually such a dynamic storyteller with a rich field to mine from.
“Quiz” tells the story of Charles and Diana Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford, respectively), an average British couple. Charles is a military man and Diana enjoys going down to the pub with her brother and father to do the weekly trivia quizzes. There isn’t much to know about the Ingrams outside of that, more so because almost immediately after establishing their home life we transition to the entertainment company Celador where network executive Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) is selling the head of the company a concept that would eventually become “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
As Smith lays out, in one of several moments where Bonnar truly shines, the series is different from other game shows at the time, mainly because most shows had been lifted from America and transitioned to England. It was rare to have it be the other way around. Also, audiences would be compelled to root for average people trying to manage their greed. Is it enough to take the $32,000 or do you risk it for more if you think you know the right answer? Whereas older game shows had generally been focused on luck, this one required skill and strategy.
The formation of the show dominates the first two episodes, with the Ingrams almost feeling like an afterthought. Smith gets Celador on board, and from there the audience sees the hiring of host Chris Tarrant (a wasted Michael Sheen in prosthetics), the first failed pilot, and the expansion of a gameshow that would eventually send Disney — literally on their knees — to the company begging for the rights. This plot point is fascinating, not just because Bonnar and the Celador crew are so fun and likable, but it shows the process of the sausage being made. You see how the company created a show that was so engaging audiences were willing to watch it daily, smashing records each time.
And yet for all the fun that comes from watching the Celador crew pat themselves on the back at their own success it’s easy to feel that the show is leapfrogging over great hurdles of time. By the time Episode 2 arrives we’re in the early 2000s and the show has garnered enough of a following as to have its own international network of cheaters. And that’s really what the show is about: What constitutes cheating? “Millionaire,” as a game show, introduces the idea of how far we’re willing to go for money — and when does greed become exorbitant?
This plays out literally with the Ingrams starting with Diana’s brother, Adrian (Trystan Gravelle). Presented as a regular screw-up, Adrian becomes determined to get on the show, eventually meeting up with a man named Paddy Spooner (Jerry Killick) who introduces the idea of a group of people who come together to help each other rig the game. Much like the creation of the show itself, this idea of average British moms and dads getting together to be each other’s Phone-a-Friend is intriguing. Really, it seems like Frears and crew are setting up this story as being a dumb crime. Unlike a movie like “Quiz Show,” what Spooner and crew are doing is just attempting to win money and secure time in the spotlight. They’re a group of regular people with little to do, so why not?
But as the plotline narrows to the Ingrams things feel a bit muddled. There isn’t much to know about the couple, short of Diana likes pub quizzes and Charles knows how to perform Gilbert and Sullivan. They’re comfortable in their finances, but could be far better. So once Adrian gets the idea to rig the game in his favor Diana all but becomes a fanatic, eventually pushing Charles onto the show and leading to their downfall. Like most of the series, it feels like things escalate quickly without presenting the nuances for us to truly care.
That being said, it’s hard not to care about the leads considering how beloved they are, Clifford as Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ sister Claire on “Fleabag” and Macfadyen as part of the stellar ensemble of “Succession.” Both are very good and charming enough ,even if their characters never feel like more than blank slates. Macfadyen, especially, is a lot of fun with a social awkwardness that’s endearing and an inner contempt for his brother-in-law. His exasperation at Adrian’s drama is relatable. To her credit, Clifford tries to make Diana more than a harridan but it’s hard. The character is just so simple that it’s difficult for the actress to find anything to latch onto, try as she might.
By the time the third and final episode arrives, culminating with the trial of the Ingrams, the series attempts to reorient and present the idea that Charles might actually not have cheated. This plays more like a desire for the series to feign objectivity but coming at the end, after two episodes of straightforward presentation, it’s hard to see this as neutral. Characters complain about not having “met” each other when they’ve had interactions and Charles is touted as a Mensa member, though we see him doing this only after the trial. Timing becomes a serious issue, as if the cheating scandal began and ended in just 3 days.
“Quiz” can feel frustratingly basic at times, suffering from slights and gaps that make the three episodes sail while feeling incomplete. The series would have benefited from either being a 90-minute movie or at least five episodes. As soon as you get comfortable the experience is over, leaving you with the question of “What’s the point?” More egregiously, Frears’ charm and whimsy feel all but absent, limited to a few scenes or dialogue exchanges. For a quiz, this feels too easy.
“Quiz” will premiere on AMC on May 31.