DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new AMC series "Quiz," beginning Sunday night, stars "Succession's" Andrew Macfadyen (ph) and "Fleabag's" Sian Clifford. They play an ordinary British couple who get caught up in a cheating scandal on the hit show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Our critic at large John Powers says the series is as fast, fun and tense as the quiz show at the center of the story.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the 1990s, game shows scarcely figured on prime time. If any single program changed this, it was "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" - which hit the U.K. in 1998. It instantly became such a smash hit - 1 in 3 Britons watched - that the show was soon franchised everywhere from America, where it was a juggernaut with Regis Philbin at the helm, to India, where it entered pop myth through the Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire." You can see the madness the show inspired in "Quiz," a new three-part British series premiering on AMC starting May 31.
In a day when too many series drag everything out, this twisty blend of comedy, drama, thriller and satire is a paragon of briskness and proportion. Written by playwright James Graham and directed by Stephen Frears, a canny old vet with youthful verve, it tells the infamous, largely true story of a married couple who get put on trial for cheating to win the show's million pounds.
The story begins in the late '90s, when the ITV network is dying for a hit. Enter producer Paul Smith, well played by Mark Bonnar, with an idea for a series that's a big-money version of the quiz nights they have at pubs. The channel's new boss signs on. And overnight, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" becomes the holy grail for quiz mavens like Diana Ingram. That's Sian Clifford, who played Fleabag's sister.
Along with her annoying brother, she schemes to get on the show. And she dragoons her honorable-seeming husband, British Army Major Charles Ingram, played by Matthew Macfadyen, to get on the show as well. He does, and something funny happens. Although the major doesn't like games and appears likeably clueless, he keeps giving right answers, often for absurd-sounding reasons.
As he wins more and more money, the show begins to suspect that he has a plant in the audience, whose strategic coughing helps him out. When producers finally call in the cops, Ingram and his wife instantly become targets of the tabloid vigilantism. That's the one thing Britain assuredly does better than anywhere else in the world. Here, after the arrest, Charles and Diane start facing the accusations.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "QUIZ")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I have to tell you that we have suspicions, from viewing the reporting of Monday's program and subsequently studying the tapes carefully, that there were irregularities during the taping of the show in which you participated.
MATTHEW MACFADYEN: (As Charles Ingram) Oh, good lord.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's a million pounds. Your change of answer...
MACFADYEN: (As Charles Ingram) Have you ever seen the show? That's what makes the show. It's what the producers want. It's the...
SIAN CLIFFORD: (As Diana Ingram) The tension.
MACFADYEN: (As Charles Ingram) The drama, the tension - exactly.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Mrs. Ingram, do you know who Tecwen Whittock is?
MACFADYEN: (As Charles Ingram) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You have no idea your wife telephoned this man on several occasions, who just happened to be a Fastest Finger First contestant on the same show, a show where coughing was heard on occasions that correlate with moments that you, Charles, changed your mind.
POWERS: Of course, game show cheating is not exactly earth-shattering stuff, especially in our current moment. But "Quiz" is still fun to watch. It definitely sketches in everything from the cynicism of TV execs to the nerviness of quiz game fanatics who network to win that million pounds. And it relishes its crack performances, be it Michael Sheen's chameleonic turn as the quiz show's smug-smiled emcee Chris Tarrant or Clifford's Diane, whose loveliness is eroded by inner distress. As the major, Macfadyen reminds us that while most of us first met him as Mr. Darcy in the Keira Knightley "Pride And Prejudice," he's at his finest in roles like this one and Tom in HBO's "Succession," in which he plays a character who may look like an alpha male but is actually a bushel of insecurities.
Now, as a game, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is pleasingly straightforward. Contestants either know the answer or they don't. It's clean and satisfying. In contrast, "Quiz's" theme is how much easier it is to know a simple fact, like the date something happened, than to know the truth of events. The series touches on murky questions about how the news covers crime, about the shifting status of facts in the Internet era and, of course, about the trickiness of ascertaining people's guilt or innocence. Did the Ingrams actually cheat?
Things look bad for them until the third and final episode. That's when their lawyer, Sonia Woodley - played with surgical intelligence by Helen McCrory - begins picking away at the prosecution's case. It relies on heavily edited tapes that emphasize the coughs that supposedly help the major. For Woodley, the trial is less a search for justice than a show, just like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" And it's true that in talking to a witness, the judge jokingly uses the quiz show's trademark question - is that your final answer?
In telling the story of the Ingrams, who insist on their innocence to this day, "Quiz" skillfully plays it down the middle. It asks us to look at facts that aren't merely ambiguous but cherry-picked by both the prosecution and the defense. By the end, we're put in a kind of contestant's chair of our own. Something of a quiz show itself, "Quiz" asks us to decide are the Ingrams innocent or guilty - a question whose final answer we may never really know.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the three-part series "Quiz," which begins on AMC this Sunday. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview with writer-comedian Hannah Gadsby, who won a Peabody Award and an Emmy for her 2018 comedy special "Nanette," partially about growing up closeted in the Bible Belt of Australia, or our interview about how we can train ourselves to breathe in ways that may improve our health and decrease anxiety with journalist James Nestor, author of the new book "Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHEL REIS QUARTET'S "REPERCUSSIONS")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help this week from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHEL REIS QUARTET'S "REPERCUSSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.