If nothing else, AMC and ITV’s three-part series Quiz will remind you of the squirmy joys of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the immaculate tension leading up to one’s confirmation that, yes, this is their final answer. That show is still on, believe it or not—Jimmy Kimmel just rebooted a new iteration this year—but, once upon a time, it was considered a risk for the simplicity of its premise.
And that’s where AMC’s Quiz begins, with Risteárd Cooper’s David Liddiment strolling into his new gig as ITV’s director of programs in search of a ratings juggernaut. He’s won over by Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) and David Briggs (Elliot Levey) of producing company Celador, whose Who Wants To Be A Millionaire concept was previously rejected, and his gamble on the pair pays off. The show is a worldwide smash, with iterations of it unfolding in countries throughout the world. Its growth is so exponential that its contestant farming and vetting process is soon revealed to be ill-equipped to deal with the hordes hoping to game the game. And that’s where things get complicated.
Based on both Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett’s Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major and a 2017 play by series creator James Graham, the miniseries goes on to unpack the real-life scandal of $1 million winner Charles Ingram (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen), an English army major who in 2001 saw his episode pulled and winnings withheld after producers suspected his answers were influenced by some strategically timed coughs in the audience from his wife, Diana (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford), and a fellow contestant, Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson). Much like the cases depicted in Netflix’s recent Trial By Media series, the Ingrams’ day in court is only part of their trial; the media fervor swirling around them means they’ve already been found guilty in the court of public opinion.
That’s a compelling tension to explore, but Quiz relegates it almost entirely to the series’ third and final episode, leading to both an overstuffed finale and an overall arc that feels unbalanced. While the origins of Millionaire and the shadowy cabal of nerds exploiting it are interesting threads, they do little to endear us to Charles and Diana, who don’t establish themselves as characters or key players until the second episode. Quiz’s tight, three-part structure is one of its selling points in this era of overstuffed TV, but the trim runtime isn’t utilized nearly as well as it could’ve been.
That doesn’t make it boring, however. The behind-the-curtain glimpse at quiz TV’s nuts and bolts is exciting, and Michael Sheen’s riff on original host Chris Tarrant succeeds both in translating his on-camera amiability and the ways Tarrant’s life in the spotlight translated into his real-life behaviors. Director Stephen Frears, meanwhile, should be commended for replicating the white-knuckle agony of the flip-flopping contestant that stopped so many from flipping the channel in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’s infancy. The escalating stakes and the anguish of the choice—so simple, so agonizing—is what kept fans watching Millionaire, and Quiz is wise to turn it around on the audience. By series’ end, we’re faced with a question as well, though any “final answers” will go unconfirmed.
“The bottom’s falling out of the truth market,” muses one character. “Is this cheating?” ask several more. Smith’s producer, meanwhile, angrily asserts that no “normal person” plays Millionaire like Charles plays it. In the courtroom, a prosecutor and a defense attorney each present cases they’d deem ironclad. By the end, a show like Millionaire begins to look like something of a fantasy—a magical place where there are things that right and things that are wrong and nothing in between.