The show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was an international hit that took TV ratings by storm, first in England on ITV and then in the United States on ABC. The game itself was almost embarrassingly simple, but, with the help of dramatic lighting and music, as well as gimmicks such as “lifelines,” it captivated the public at a time when such massive network hits were becoming increasingly rare. It was a sensation for a year or two, and it still airs here and there, including on ABC, where Jimmy Kimmel recently premiered a celebrity version.
“Quiz” is a three-parter that digs into an unhappy chapter in the history of the show, when an Army major named Charles Ingram won the top prize — the million — under suspicious circumstances. Ingram was accused of cheating after the show’s producers studied tapes of his appearances, listening carefully to the sounds from the audience. It wasn’t just that the awkward Ingram repeatedly changed his mind as he answered the quiz questions; the timing of audience coughs seemed to indicate a cheating system involving his quiz-fanatic wife, Diana (yes, another Charles and Diana) and someone else. The scandal became national news, and the Ingrams were brought to trial, as well as threatened and ridiculed by strangers pretending to cough.
Directed by Stephen Frears, who brought a similarly upbeat intelligence to another truth-based three-parter, “A Very English Scandal,” “Quiz” is a thought-provoking and entertaining miniseries, even if it peters out a bit close to the end. Written by James Graham, who based it on his play of the same title, it brings us into the ordinary lives of Charles and Diana, ripe for the promises that a show such as “Millionaire” offers. It gives us a strong sense of how “Millionaire” was put together, why the network bought the show after previously rejecting it, and why it spoke so loudly to so many people at that moment. As one of the producers puts it, the show combines two of England’s favorite pastimes, “drinking and being right.”
Graham doesn’t pronounce innocence or guilt — the “final answer” — but he toys with them in ways that broaden the scope of “Quiz” beyond a did-they-or-didn’t-they story. His ambiguities are carefully gauged. The miniseries is marked by a bemused perspective on everyone from the Ingrams and the producers to the network honchos and the underground groups of quiz fanatics who try to beat the system. Their neuroses and obsessions are all there for us to smile about. The idea that something as simplistic as coughing could present such big problems is not beyond the miniseries’ humor, either.
The cast is excellent, most notably Matthew Macfadyen as Charles. He captures a bland man who has scruples, but may or may not abide by them. When he answers the questions posed by show host Chris Tarrant (Michael Sheen), he bumbles forward in a way that is both cute and annoying, feeding the show’s trademark tension. The script doesn’t go especially deep into his character, nor does it with Sian Clifford’s Diana, and yet it’s hard not to feel for them as the trial by media speedily damns them. When Charles wears a Mensa pin to the courtroom, his desperation to escape pre-judgment is palpable — like “Quiz,” both humorous and kind of sad.
Starring: Matthew Macfadyen, Sian Clifford, Michael Sheen, Helen McCrory, Trystan Gravelle, Mark Bonnar, Elliot Levey, Aisling Bea
On: AMC. Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.