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Quiz is more clever than it seems

The AMC broadcast of the British limited series appears straightforward, but asks some subtly weighty questions.


Quiz review — Grade: A

I knew I liked Quiz from the first episode, but I didn’t appreciate how good it was until the third. And that’s not a “give it three episodes” pitch: The whole series itself is only three episodes. Bless the Brits’ affinity for three-hour seasons of television.

Quiz, which originally aired on ITV in April and will air as a three-night event in the U.S. on AMC, tells the seemingly straightforward story of Charles Ingram. Ingram won the top million pound prize of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2001 before being charged and found guilty of “procuring the execution of valuable security by deception” — essentially defrauding the show. Cheating.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Matthew Macfayden (Succession, Pride and Prejudice) and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) play the leads, Charles and Diana, though they are — perhaps surprisingly — rather minor, one-note characters through the first two episodes. Charles is more Tom Wambsgans than Mr. Darcy, but Macfayden gives him an exasperated humanity Tom lacks and it’s easy to see how his bumbling gameplay would endear him both to Millionaire host Chris Tarrant (an almost unrecognizable Martin Sheen) and the nation watching at home. When the final act comes, the groundwork has already been laid for Macfayden to reveal further layers that both complicate and elevate what Charles’ narrative.

Still, Mark Bonnar (Catastrophe) is arguably the show’s MVP, as Millionaire creator* Paul Smith who, in addition to enjoying some of the most fun lines, ends up experiencing quite the reckoning as the reality of the broader situation becomes more clear. Elliot Levey is equally wonderful as his right-hand man, David. Many of best, most humorous moments come from the banter the two share, together and with Aisling Bea’s Claudia, as Millionaire comes together.

(*One of Quiz‘s more confusing elements is using real people’s names like Paul Smith and David Briggs in roles slightly different to their place in reality. Quiz’s Briggs is very much a second-in-command; in reality he’s credited with creating the show.)

Quiz uses its time incredibly well, and consequently it’s a timely reminder, in the age of Netflix bloat, of the efficacy of knowing exactly what you want to say and how long you need to say it. The first episode focuses on setting the scene: How Who Wants to be a Millionaire? came to be and establishing the pub-quiz obsession of Diana and her brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) — an obsession decidedly not shared by Charles himself. The second covers Charles’ two-night performance and gobsmacking victory on Millionaire and the third, the fallout and court trial when the police decide to press charges.

Each act is an expert balance of the stranger-than-fiction (or is it?) true crime (or is it?) story, carefully calibrating the jaunty tone of a heist movie and priming your conclusions, before pulling the rug out.

For starters, there’s a certain fun to watching a cultural institution form: To watch a pitch evolve into something so well-known its been spoofed countless times over. To see the concept proven out, quirks tweaked, the name changed, the host cast. This part of the show is perfectly paced too: It’s not the dramatic meat of the narrative and hence is adequately and appropriately covered through pivotal conference rooms scenes, dramatic wagers and snappy montages.

The same energy is applied to Adrian’s devolution into the seedy (?) underbelly (?) of pub quiz Millionaire hackers who game the random system to place potential contestants in the Fast Fingers chairs and will even, for a reasonable 25 percent of the winnings, be your phone-a-friend.

Even the “con” itself — Charles’ time in the chair — is treated with the breezy levity of a forgone conclusion. We know he wins, and we know (do we?) that he cheats. With this is in mind, it’s seems so glaringly obvious, it’s thrillingly fun to watch. (Macfayden seems to have a real ball talking his way to every right answer. Refreshingly, the producers cotton to the variety of cons fast, even if they don’t initially quite grasp the scope or what exactly to do about it. (One of the more surreal true elements of the story is that the day after he won, when the ITV began looking into the tapes, was September 11, 2001.)

But it is perhaps the narrative ease with which this all develops that makes the sneaky gravity of Quiz take you by surprise.

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If the first two episodes are purely entertaining, the third is deceptively deep. Quiz lulls you into a false sense of security that you know what you’re watching. Until the trial, the narrative is told with the assumption that Diana and Charles did cheat. Because we’re told they did. In the first seconds of the show. And we’ve seen it. We heard the coughs. We saw him guess wrong and then miraculously change it before making it his final answer.

At the risk of ruining the magic of the trial episode, the defense’s case — about the power of trial by media, justice as entertainment, confirmation bias — is a powerful one, made even more so as the show is decidedly patient with revealing the supporting evidence. It’s an incredible episode, in large part because it’s here that Macfayden and Clifford are really allowed to dial it up to 11 and their solicitor, played by Helen McCrory, is honestly terrifying.

If there is a fault in Quiz, it doesn’t offer a satisfying conclusion about the Ingrams’ guilt. As an end card details, they’ve maintained their innocence. It’s simply a matter of what you believe and a reminder that perception has the power to change to what you’re convinced is the right answer.

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