Beginning Sunday, May 31, AMC will air Quiz, a three-part drama from writer James Graham and director Stephen Frears detailing the meteoric rise of Britain’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and the stunning cheating scandal that threatened to tear it down.
With clever writing, an excellent cast, and inspired direction, Quiz propels you through the episodes with breakneck speed.
By the time Who Wants to Be a Millionaire landed in the US, it was already a phenomenon in the UK. Historic ratings made it an easy sell to foreign entities, and by starting Quiz early in the development at ITV, viewers get the full picture of went into the modern marvel.
From the earliest stages, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire capitalized on the audience’s perception of what they’re watching and how it drives them into a bit of a frenzy.
Graham and Frears deftly introduce all of the major players in the scandal concurrently.
When producers Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) and David Briggs (Elliott Levey) take their idea to new ITV programming chief David Liddiment (Risteárd Cooper), we’re also getting to know Charles and Diana (not to be confused with the even more famous couple), a military man and his wife, as well as her brother, Adrian (Trystan Gravelle).
The casting is superb, and Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford offer a lot as the unassuming couple who get wrapped up in Adrian’s scheming to land a spot on the successful game show.
Everything from the moment of the show’s inception was created to capitalize on the frenzied aspect of Millionaire, and there is a terrific scene in which Smith and Briggs put Liddiment right into their proposed hot seat.
With very little urging, he falls right into the trap they set, and once you see his reaction to the thrilling scenario that would ultimately play out in homes everywhere, it’s evident how Millionaire achieved such heights.
At the same time, luring a nation already obsessed with trivia to the dark side in an attempt to earn big cash prizes was also inevitable.
What Smith and Briggs sold to ITV was a concept so engaging that it was begging hopeful contestants to find a way to be a part of the action even if it was at the expense of their fellow citizens and possibly, the law.
And what’s revealed as the alleged cheating gets investigated is almost a feat given the lack of social media with which we’ve become so familiar now.
The little guys worked together to topple a giant with a network of knowledge and technical feats that allowed many people the privilege of sitting on the hot seat.
The way Millionaire manipulated viewers and whipped them into the aforementioned frenzy is jawdropping in its simplicity. Similarly, Graham and Frears manipulate the Quiz audience to tell their tale, and it’s a helluva ride.
You’re taken on a journey from both sides of a cheating scandal from the outside in and the inside out. Millionaire’s vulnerabilities are examined at the same time we marvel at their exploitation by contestants hoping to game their way on stage.
Once the scandal breaks, from the inside out, viewers believe they have a pretty good handle on what happened. And then Graham and Frears switch direction.
This is a very short and exciting ride through the historical scandal, and they never let you off the hook. When Quiz originally aired in Britain, it was planned as a three-night event to grab attention in the same way Millionaire first dominated the nightly telly lineup.
It’s a shame, really, that AMC didn’t take the same approach, as there is no time like now when viewers still suffering from lockdown fatigue need to be titillated to dazzle them with three nights that’ll keep them on the edge of their seats.
Because even though the scandal is real and well in the past (it broke in 2001), Charles and Diana are still fighting to clear their name of the conviction.
And after watching Quiz, you might be on their side. The media drove the sensational case and sullied their guilt or innocence well before their trial, and even barristers played with perception to help persuade the courts to believe their side of the story.
This is a tale of unimaginable success, shocking luck, and a concerted effort to manipulate the system from all sides.
Macfayden is perfect as Charles. Those already familiar with his talent know there’s no one better to play a character with an ambiguous demeanor, at once both sharp as a tack and incredibly dim.
Bonnar is lovely as Smith, a man both alarmed at what happened to his production and somewhat in awe of those driven to extraordinary lengths to be a part of his creation.
Prodigal Son’s Michael Sheen is almost unrecognizable as Millionaire host Chris Tarrant and had to be a fun role for Sheen to play.
Those of you who read me regularly know how much I enjoyed HBO’s documentary McMillions.
It’s utterly fascinating to me that the McMillions scandal was gaming McDonalds at the same time Charles Ingram was believed to be gaming Millionaire in Britain, and both are not tip-of-the-tongue knowledge for the same reason — September 11, 2001.
The perfection with which Quiz unfurls the sordid tale gives me hope that in the right hands, a fictionalization of McMillions could be equally as engrossing.
You’ll have to wait through three weeks for the entire story on AMC, but it’s more than worthy of your attention. It might be one of the best things to air on television this year.
Quiz premieres on AMC Sunday, May 31 at 10/9c, and two subsequent episodes will air on Sunday, June 7, and Sunday, June 14, at 9/8c. Find time on your schedule to watch. You won’t be disappointed.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.