Quiz review: British miniseries on SonyLIV punctures the myth of meritocracy and game shows

The three-part dramatisation of a British game show scandal is worth watching, even if it has no answer for its million-dollar question.

Prahlad Srihari November 05, 2020 14:03:11 IST
Quiz review: British miniseries on SonyLIV punctures the myth of meritocracy and game shows

A still from Quiz

Language: English

Quiz shows were like a rite of passage for many of us who grew up in the '90s and noughties. Before kids wanted to be “Indian Idols” and “Masterchefs," they wanted to appear on Bournvita Quiz Contest and Kaun Banega Crorepathi. Put in the hard work, do your daily reading, and you very well could. These shows fed our natural curiosity as kids, and afforded millions the simple pleasures of collectively participating in a pop culture event from our living rooms. But there was a lot more to it.

KBC, especially, offered a platform where ordinary Indians could be extraordinary. It gave us hope that we could transform our lives, no matter how tragic our backstories were. In that way, it essentially shaped our belief in meritocracy, a fair economic system that rewards intelligence, skill, and diligence. It made us believe you don't need to be related to an Ambani or an Adani to get ahead. 

That is until you grow up and realise meritocracy is a myth fabricated by the privileged. And to protect their privilege, they will game the system by any means necessary.

Quiz, a British miniseries streaming on SonyLIV, punctures this myth further. Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen), a former British Army major, went the full distance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, before he was convicted of cheating his way to the top prize. 

The ITV drama tells his story in three parts. First, we are treated to the drama behind the conception of the game show as Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) pitches his brainchild to TV producers. The show is an instant hit, each week an unprecedented ratings success. Millions tune in, and thousands call in for a chance to make it to the hot seat.

Quiz review British miniseries on SonyLIV punctures the myth of meritocracy and game shows

Sian Clifford as Diana Ingram in Quiz

It becomes something of an obsession for the Ingram family. Before Charles, his wife Diana (Sian Clifford) and her brother Adrian Pollock (Trystan Gravelle) had appeared on the show, taking home £32,000 apiece. Charles, unlike Diana and Adrian who were both avid pub quizzers, had little interest in the show, but gets tangled up in their obsession. They help him rigorously prepare with a custom-made Fastest Finger First machine, and their efforts pay off. He makes it to the hot seat opposite host extraordinaire Chris Tarrant (Michael Sheen). But the first night doesn't go swimmingly as Charles ends up using two lifelines to win just £4,000.

Macfadyen's Charles is not just easily swayed like his Tom Wambsgans (from Succession), but also retains the latter's nervous energy. During the game show sequences, the nervous energy of course practically feeds on itself. The swirling blue lights, the dramatic silence, and the intercut close-ups of the host and the contestant — all add to the tension. When you are playing for a life-changing amount of money, the tension reaches its peak between “Is that your final answer?,” and the yes or no. The tanned Sheen makes for an ideal scene partner, still possessing the same transformative power he showcased as David Frost in Frost/Nixon.

Quiz review British miniseries on SonyLIV punctures the myth of meritocracy and game shows

Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in Quiz

The second part picks up the following day, as Charles returns a new man with a new strategy. Despite repeated admissions of ignorance and fickle changes in answers seemingly on instinct, he ends up walking away with a £1 million check — much to the surprise of the viewers, the host, and the producers. His erratic behaviour raises questions, and the producers launch an investigation. On studying his behaviour, and the corresponding reactions of his wife sitting in the audience ,and another contestant waiting in the Fastest Finger First section, they discover a suspicious pattern of coughing. Convinced he cheated, they cancel the cheque and inform the police. The final part deals with the fallout and the subsequent trial.

Both the Ingrams were charged with deception, but director Stephen Frears — like the James Graham play he adapts from — introduces an element of doubt in a story that has long been judged and sealed. He doesn't vindicate the Ingrams, but he doesn't villainise them either. By the second episode, you are convinced of their guilt. By the third, not so much. Watching the trial, you are not sure there is enough evidence to convict them, especially when the primary evidence is a video edited by a production team already convinced of their guilt. This becomes the key argument for the Ingrams' lawyer (Helen McCrory), who contends the prosecution's narrative is entirely built on their own carefully constructed circumstantial evidence.

The show adopts this ambiguous position to expose the malleable nature of truth, and how facts can be interpreted in contrasting ways. Perception lies in the eye of the beholder, and this is illustrated with a tragedy that occurred in the backdrop of Charles's victory: the 9/11 attacks. What happened in its aftermath was another glaring manipulation of narrative: the invasion of Iraq, which coincides with the Ingrams' trial. The US exploited the rhetoric of fear to construct a false narrative that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when there was no empirical evidence whatsoever. And the world believed them. We don't get any such indisputable answers in Quiz. What we do know is the Ingrams went on to appear on other reality shows, while the producers spawned many successful versions of the game show across the world.

Quiz review British miniseries on SonyLIV punctures the myth of meritocracy and game shows

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Ingram in Quiz

The media trial, as always, opted for a "guilty until proven innocent" approach. The tabloids' persecution invited public harassment. Charles lost his job, their daughters were bullied, and their dog was killed. Spat on and coughed at, they had to move houses. Clifford shines in these moments, her stoic demeanour hiding a vulnerability and guilt over putting the family in this position.

Indeed, the public anger erupted because, as the prosecutor puts it, “the accused look, and for all intents and purposes are, respectable – middle class, middle-aged, middle-England men and women.” Moreover, three members of a family appeared on a show meant to reward merit. What's worse: they enlisted the help of an underground syndicate to do it. Simply put, it broke the common man's faith in the meritocracy, myth or not.

Meritocracy breeds competition, and competition breeds cheating. The white upper-middle-class feels the need to cheat the system when they sense a threat to their privilege — even if the system was only designed for their welfare. It is the same reason why the Byrds do the things they do in Ozark, or Felicity Huffman & co did what they did in the college admissions scandal. When they justify their actions under the pretext of their family's future, what they really mean is they will defend their privilege, whatever the cost. Just like the Ingrams.

Quiz is streaming in India on SonyLIV.

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