Stephen Frears’ new miniseries is a deft three episodes that shifts perspectives and plots with ease, even if it doesn’t completely pay off.
“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth.”
This quote from Pablo Picasso leads in the first episode of AMC’s miniseries Quiz. It’s a fitting quote because while the story is based on true events, its status as a piece of entertainment means that it can never be a fully accurate recording of said events. However, while the show isn’t 100 percent historically accurate, it still manages to have the type of honesty that can only be found in media.
Quiz recounts the controversy that arose when Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) won the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The Millionaire producers found it odd that a man who used two of the show’s infamous lifelines in the first couple of rounds would survive all the way to the final question. The contestant’s odd habit of waffling between answers only added to the enigma of the situation. When an editor notices that Charles had a habit of changing his answer after fellow contestant Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson) coughed, they accuse Charles, Tecwen, and Charle’s wife, Diana (Sian Clifford), of cheating. The Ingrams look guilty at the outset, but is there more to the story than meets the eye?
Stephen Frears directs this three-part limited series adapted by James Graham, based on his play of the same name. Oftentimes, adaptations of plays will have a boxed-in feel to them, but Quiz gives us a fully realized world, and the story has been retailored to fit perfectly in a miniseries format.
Part of the reason why the world of Quiz feels so fully realized Graham’s ability to put multiple points of view in focus. Not only do we get Charles’ recollection of events, but we also see his family’s perspective, as well as the perspective of Millionaire’s producers. Every side receives both positive and critical portrayals, and though they all have their own version of events, no perspective can fully confirm or contradict the others’ stories.
Quiz devotes most of the first episode to showing how producer David Briggs (Elliot Levey) and Paul Smith (Mark Bonner), the founder of production company Celador, developed the program. It also shows the odd subculture of enthusiasts and their legally dodgy business of providing answers to quiz show hopefuls during the phone screening that producers use to pick contestants.
This community helps Charle’s brother-in-law Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) get on the show, but he only wins £32,000. Adrian, desperate for money to pay off his debts, uses what he knows to first get Diana and later Charles on the show. Once Charles gets on Millionaire, Frears and Graham pivot Quiz from a history of the game show’s development into a mystery in the second episode, shifting it again into a courtroom drama in the third. But while the audience is given all the clues, the show doesn’t provide any answers. All the aspects that seem suspicious in episode two—Charle’s odd behavior, the strange coughing, and Diana’s call to Tecwen—get plausible explanations in the third episode.
Each episode provides a different glimpse of Charles’ interior life, and Macfadyen matches his performance to the role. In the first episode, which puts a large focus on the game show community, Charles is an everyman, and Macfadyen’s performance is milquetoast. In the second episode, we see how the producers came to believe he was cheating, but oddly enough, the show doesn’t depict him as machiavellian or outright malicious. Quiz shows him as an unwilling (and not particularly bright) participant. In the third episode, we see Charles’ point of view, depicting him as intelligent and shrewd. He’s a man who was playing a more buffoonish character to make good TV.
Ultimately, the commitment to ambivalence makes Quiz one of the most honest true-crime series on TV.
The surrounding cast also shines. Clifford’s Diana is a sweet woman with an underlying intensity and cunning that comes out when she feels threatened. Conversely, Gravelle plays Adrian with a barely contained mania and obsession that makes him fascinating to watch. Perhaps the best performance is Michael Sheen as Millionaire’s host, Chris Tarrant. Sheen emulates Tarrant’s mannerisms and speech patterns without feeling like a caricature.
But while the multiple viewpoints give Quiz a unique twist to the “true story” drama, it comes at the expense of the story. This is most noticeable in the first episode which portrays Adrian—but not Charles or Diana—as the protagonist. It’s he who delves into the game show underworld. That, coupled with the character’s financial debt, provides more motivation than Charles and Diana have, making him a more compelling character.
Adrian is necessary to the plot since he ropes the Ingrams into getting on the show, but the decision to make him prominent in the first episode makes Charles seem dull in comparison. Even worse, his subplot is dropped after the first episode, and he barely makes an appearance afterward without so much as his fate ever disclosed.
Perhaps us not knowing what happened to Adrian is a thematically resonant choice. We’ll never know what actually happened while Charles was in the hot seat, and even if we did, there’s no way for a miniseries to show the whole truth. Ultimately, this commitment to ambivalence makes Quiz one of the most honest true-crime series on TV. While this ambivalence affects its enjoyment at times, it still leaves the viewer thinking about it long after the final episode.
Quiz premieres tomorrow, Sunday, May 31 at 10:00 pm EDT on AMC.