Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Ingram in “Quiz.” (Photo: Matt Frost/AMC/ITV)
Who needs rapping videos, big cats in zoos and murder when you have a couple allegedly stealing the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” 1 million-pound prize with a series of well-timed coughs?
In 2001, a British couple went on trial for grand larceny via coughing on the set of the massively popular game show, a plot so farcical and amusing it seems tailor-made for TV treatment.
AMC’s “Quiz” (Sunday, 10 EDT/PDT, then 9 EDT/PDT June 7 and 14; ★★★½ out of four) dramatizes an already melodramatic story in an absolutely outstanding and zany miniseries. With a splendid cast, including Sian Clifford (“Fleabag”), Matthew Macfadyen (“Succession”) and an unrecognizable Michael Sheen as the game show’s host, “Quiz” is three episodes of stranger-than-fiction thrills and hilarity. (Just try not to look up the ending to the real-life story before the series is over.)
“Quiz” follows both the rise of “Millionaire” as a TV phenomenon across the pond (before it became one on ABC in America) and quiz-happy couple Charles and Diana Ingram’s (Macfadyen and Clifford) allegedly criminal obsession with it. (Yes, Prince Charles and Princess Diana jokes are made with abandon).
Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in “Quiz.” (Photo: Matt Frost/AMC)
Diana and her exuberant brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) are already pub quiz devotees when Adrian’s attention is turned to the recently premiered “Millionaire.” He finds his way into a subculture of game show fanatics who have discovered how to rig the system the series uses to put random contestants in the hot seat. Using ethically questionable tactics, Adrian, Diana and finally Charles make their way onto the show, stunning producer Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) and host Chris Tarrant (Sheen).
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When Charles first competes on the show, he seems like a bumbling idiot, contradicting himself and changing his answers irrationally. Yet somehow he wins a million pounds. The network is convinced he cheated. But how? Their answer: Well-timed coughs from Diana in the audience and an accomplice contestant (Michael Jibson) in the “fastest finger” chairs. (If it’s been awhile since you’ve watched “Millionaire,” those are the four potential contestants in the chairs surrounding the stage.) All three are subsequently charged with theft.
The plot of “Quiz” is so naturally absurd the writers needed to do little except get out of its way and allow the ridiculous series of events to unfold. There is something so delightful about a quirky group of fanatics trying to game the “Millionaire” system with the intensity of robbers breaking into Fort Knox. There are bootleg machines to train on, lifeline tactics to master and a hilarious phone-tree conspiracy as a pre-internet way of finding trivia answers quickly. Rather than shame and belittle the game show obsessives, “Quiz” has an affinity for their idiosyncrasies and personalities, which contributes to the series’ jovial tone.
What elevates “Quiz” beyond a scripted docudrama is the performances from the cast, especially MacFadyen, Clifford, Sheen and Bonnar, who take their scenes all the way to the edge of unhinged without ever going too far. The costuming and production design also excel at turning Sheen into a passable version of Tarrant and re-creating the “Millionaire” set in nostalgic detail. For fans of the game show, it might be more satisfying to tune into “Quiz” than ABC’s current celebrity version hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.
The miniseries falters slightly in its final hour when, after casting some reasonable doubt over the Ingrams’ guilt, it rushes to an ambivalent conclusion. Although the frantic energy and pace of the series is mostly a strength, there is a sense that “Quiz” pauses abruptly rather than properly ending.
Matthew Macfadyen as Charles and Sian Clifford as Diana in “Quiz.” (Photo: Matt Frost/AMC/ITV)
But it’s easy to overlook the last 10 minutes when most of the three hours are so much fun. Rarely has a show ostensibly about a crime been so positively giddy in relating its series of nefarious events. “Quiz” layers a considerable amount of doubt on the established narrative of the Ingrams, enough to make people familiar with the case wonder if they really cheated, or if it was all a big misunderstanding. Did they do it? Does it matter?
Yes. No. Maybe. That’s my final answer.
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