In a scene early in “Quiz,” a limited series premiering on AMC in May, two middle-aged men sit in an empty pub, whispering in hushed tones like spies on a covert mission.
Their eyes dart around nervously, even though it’s the middle of the day and the pub is empty.
“I’ve been working with some people,” says Paddy Spooner (Jerry Killick), leader of a group called the Syndicate that is, as he puts it, forming “an unlikely resistance in the quiet little villages of England — the perfect place to plan our attack.”
“Attack what?” asks Adrian (Trystan Gravelle), a jittery, trivia-obsessed dad whose kids are waiting in the car outside.
“The show, of course,” replies Paddy, referring to “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” the hit game-show format that originated on Britain’s ITV in the late ’90s and helped usher in a new era of reality television.
In three brisk and wildly entertaining episodes, “Quiz” tells the story of Charles and Diana Ingram, a seemingly respectable middle-class British couple (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford) who were accused of cheating their way to a million-pound prize on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 2001, at the height of its popularity in the U.K. Their alleged crime? Using a system of coded coughs to steer Charles toward the right answers on the quiz show.
But “Quiz,” directed by Stephen Frears and written by James Graham, is not the only new show in 2020 to tell an absurd, stranger-than-fiction story about a forgotten scam involving a popular game from the early ’00s. It follows on the heels of “McMillions,” a six-part HBO documentary chronicling a massive fraud in which a group of conspirators stole $24 million in prize money from the McDonald’s Monopoly game.
These shows join a growing list of pop culture about cons, hoaxes, frauds and debacles — a thriving subgenre of (mostly) blood-free true crime that feeds on a shared contempt for a rigged system and the people who most shamelessly manipulate it.
Last year brought us dueling documentaries about the Fyre Festival, a supposedly luxurious music festival that was hyped up by glamorous Instagram influencers but turned into a comic fiasco. There was an HBO documentary, a bestselling nonfiction book and a chart-topping podcast about the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the failed healthcare company Theranos. (More Holmes projects are in the works, including a movie with Jennifer Lawrence and a TV show starring Kate McKinnon.)
And we were all riveted by headlines about the college admissions scandal, which was quickly turned into a Lifetime movie, and fake heiress Anna Delvey, whose story is being developed into TV shows by HBO and Netflix. These tales offered a juicy distraction from the quote-unquote real news but also tapped into “eat the rich” rage.
“These kinds of stories of extreme hubris inspire a lot of schadenfreude,” says Victoria Thompson, co-writer and co-producer of “The Dropout,” a podcast about Holmes which is being adapted developed into a TV show for Hulu, “and it’s kind of a satisfying ending when they see this perfect veneer cracked.”
But if the alleged schemes that grabbed our attention throughout 2019 are aspirational and distinctly millennial in flavor, concerned with the manipulative powers of social media and the fake-it-til-you-make-it culture of Silicon Valley, our scam obsession is now entering a normcore phase. Gone are the college dropouts promising to revolutionize healthcare, the phony socialites swindling free rides on private jets, the sitcom actresses buying their kids into top universities in order to “build their brand.”
They’ve been replaced by working stiffs with piles of debt who, quite understandably, just want to make a quick buck.
While “Quiz” is a fact-based dramatization boasting a prestigious pedigree (Frears is a two-time Oscar nominee, Graham a Tony-nominated playwright) and “McMillions” a documentary made by previously unknown directors, the similarities between the stories — and the ways in which they are told — are illuminating.
Both are set in the period around 9/11, with pivotal events unfolding on the literal eve of the attacks — an event that would immediately, if not permanently, pry our attention away from the trivial and the tawdry. Charles Ingram taped the winning episode of “Millionaire” on Sept. 10, 2001, while halfway around the world, the FBI was making arrests in the Monopoly fraud case. (The FBI’s investigation was known internally by a code name, Operation Final Answer, inspired by — you guessed it — “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”)
While “Quiz” and “McMillions” tap into nostalgia for this seemingly more innocent period in history, they also force us to reconsider it through a more skeptical lens.
“I lived that entire decade and this [scam] was happening in front of me and I had no idea it was all a lie,” said Brian Lazarte, who directed “McMillions” with James Lee Hernandez. “That’s truly why it must strike a nerve with so many people. Because then you start to wonder, ‘What else of my life is a lie?’”
Added Hernandez: “Most people when they find out about this are shocked, and then the response is, ‘I knew something was going on.’ This proves all that paranoia we have had over the years, because how many people did you know who won something other than a free French fry or a McFlurry? It’s proof that you had no chance to win.”
And both shows focus on schemes perpetrated by average, generally law-abiding citizens who are willing to bend the rules — and then some — to win a seven-figure prize, figuring the only “victims” of their deception are large, deep-pocketed corporations.
The mastermind of the “McMillions” scam was a former cop named Jerry Jacobson — by nearly all accounts not someone you’d want living next door — who worked in tandem with a low-level gangster named Jerry Colombo. But they recruited a large circle of friends and family for their scheme, many of them decent people for whom the promise of an easy escape from financial woes caused a kind of temporary insanity. (The Monopoly scam has also drawn interest in Hollywood: Ben Affleck optioned a 2018 Daily Beast story about it for a feature film, with a script currently in the works.)
Perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the series is Gloria Brown, a single, churchgoing black mother who was making $24,000 a year when she got roped into the fraud. Brown was hand-selected by Colombo’s wife, Robin, because all the other “winners” had been white and many of them were Italian American — a circumstance they worried would arouse suspicion.
“I just wanted a better life,” Brown says in “McMillions,” “and I just felt this was my opportunity.”
It didn’t turn out that way: Brown remortgaged her house in order to fork over a $50,000 down payment on the winning game piece, then had to give Colombo a 50% cut of her annual payment, leaving her with little cash once she’d paid taxes.
Whereas “McMillions” provides an eye-opening introduction to a wide-reaching, multimillion-dollar fraud many of us never heard about because it was drowned out by 9/11, “Quiz” challenges assumptions about a case that was once well-known in the U.K.
“The point is to take any story that everyone is so certain about and go, ‘Maybe those certainties are misplaced’ in an attempt to to ask questions about the nature of truth and what can be believed anymore,” said Graham, whose credits include the recent HBO film “Brexit: An Uncivil War” and the Broadway play “Ink.”
The Ingrams’ 2003 trial sparked a tabloid frenzy and vitriolic attacks that preyed on class resentment. (Charles, an officer in the British military, was dubbed “The Coughing Major.”) Even though they weren’t rich, “They presented themselves as quite genteel, well-to-do military people,” explained Graham, making them easy targets.
A 90-minute documentary that made the case for their guilt, hosted by professional provocateur Martin Bashir, drew an audience of 17 million — 56% of the television audience on the night it was broadcast and the highest ratings for the ITV network since Princess Diana’s death.
Adapted from Graham’s play of the same name, “Quiz” details how the couple went to extreme and possibly unethical, if not criminal, lengths to become contestants on the show. But “Quiz” casts serious doubt on the central allegations against the Ingrams — that they coordinated with an audience member to signal the right answers via cough — suggesting the narrative in the courtroom was as manipulative as an episode of reality TV.
Outfitted in bad sweaters, dorky golf shirts and mom jeans, the Ingrams are mild-mannered parents, not natural-born criminals. They are drawn into the scheme by Diana’s brother, Adrian, a pub-quiz fanatic who is desperate to win the prize money in order to pay off his loans.
What ultimately makes “Millionaire” — originally titled “Cash Mountain” — riveting TV are the contestants who, out of greed or sheer desperation, long for a cash windfall. In the game show’s premiere episode, re-created in “Quiz,” a young woman says she hopes to use prize money to resolve her finances and get married. She makes the agonizing decision to go home with a meager £8,000 rather risking it all on a question she’s not certain about. Then she finds out from host Chris Tarrant (an orange-hued Michael Sheen) that, had she gone through with her guess, she would have gotten it right. She breaks into tears while producers in the control room cheer: They’ve got a hit on their hands.
It’s enough to make you wonder who’s scamming whom.