AMC’s ‘Quiz’ Makes a Game out of a National Scandal

Britain’s nightlife is a little different from America’s. They throw darts and have pub quizzes. Our bars have pool tables and usually some bookmaking action. Everyone loves to gamble. AMC’s three-part British drama “Quiz” tells the story of two of the biggest gambles run in the United Kingdom. London TV executives bet their houses on a chance of a hit show. Fanatic contestants spend their savings on the chance they can break the bank. Screenwriter James Graham adapted his play “Quiz,” that told the story of the real life 2001 scandal which rocked the original British “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” game show. Director Stephen Frears (“A Very English Scandal”) structures the three-part TV event much like the game show which stars in it.

While there is a caper thriller element to the series, “Quiz” is about the show which inspired it, as much a character as any of the players. The game show is also the most recognizable name. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” is an underdog which pays off. The show pulls in 19 million viewers, roughly a third of the British TV audience, as a special event. The scandal which came out of it inspired a monster hit for courtroom news coverage. Brits love pub quizzes because it combines the two things they like most: drinking and being right, says the creator when he pitches it. By the time David Liddiment (Risteard Cooper), ITV’s new director of programming, is threatening to fire staff over “Titanic” trivia knowledge, it becomes apparent just how fun the show is. 

Liddiment is a true believer in the gospel of “Event Television,” and most of the first episode is about building “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” into something which will make the Princess Diana funeral look like a morning of “News in Welsh.” The show producers David Briggs (Elliot Levey) and Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) pitch is called “Cash Mountain.” Most British game shows at the time were American knockoffs. This concept is an original. Audiences root for greed. This is risk over luck. The pilot isn’t great, though it is amusing to watch it get put together. The potential is evident but the sets “looks like an interrogation by the Gestapo.” They make it darker, more foreboding, and much more intimidating. The seats have speakers built into them to distract contestants with ominous beats.

When “Millionaire” gets to the network Disney takes notice. “Mickey Mouse is coming up the stairs,” the British producer exclaims. It becomes a big enough haul to be fleeced by a rag tag team of cheats. Before the games begin, a panel of judges gives opening remarks. The preface informs us this is headed for the courts and to view it as a heist drama. While the players aren’t quite as colorful as the gangsters in “Goodfellas,” their planning is comparable to the multimillion dollar Lufthansa heist. 

The plot is hatched by Adrian Pollock (Trystan Gravelle) and his sister Diana (Sian Clifford), veterans of the pub quizzes and obsessed “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” watchers. Adrian is a loser determined to win. Paddy Spooner (Jerry Killick) stakes him to a seat. The wild card is Diana’s Gilbert and Sullivan-loving husband Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen). He’s a military man. She’s a Trivial Pursuit drill sergeant. As a dominated husband, Charles passive aggressively tries to top from the bottom. He bitches about everything but goes along with whatever he’s told. Diana and Adrian are the show’s biggest fans. Charles thinks “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” is trivial. Charles and Diana have royal-sounding names, it is pointed out on the quiz show, and a daughter who may very well be traded off to her uncle. Adrian colludes with an underground community of gamers who think they can handicap the game. 

The show lays out the proceedings as they are being explained in the planning of the cheat. But the beats echo the suspense which builds up on the game show as it airs. The initial contestants are shown as desperate players whose story pours out as they top off too soon and too cheaply. Their faces under ever-tightening close-ups as the cameras milk their every disappointment. Michael Sheen as game show host Chris Tarrant curdles their hopes, taunting them with how much they might have won if only they’d gone with their gut. The scheme comes together with similar techniques. Adrian even looks for a lifeline after being approached by the underground community’s intelligence wing.

“Quiz” is paced like a comedy, with quick brush strokes and steady punch lines. Smith and Briggs are less concerned over the team “threatening the integrity of the game” than they are by how boring they look doing it. TV has always been able to profit from pain, and ITV profited from the scandal, which they also made into two documentaries. In the 1994 movie “Quiz Show,” the producers fixed the game. After the first episode, it looks like “Quiz” will rig the jury. The producers will still win. The “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” fraud scandal is compelling, and “Quiz” makes a good game of it.

Quiz” premieres May 31 at 10 p.m. and airs Sundays on AMC.