Thursday, October 20, 2016

Quiz Show (1994)

Note:  This review does give away major plot points including the ending.  The movie is based on fact and probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the story.  However, if you don’t like knowing a lot going in, you might want to wait before reading the review.


Herb Stempel was a hero in his neighborhood.  He had won a lot of money on a quiz show named Twenty-One.  The object was to answer questions.  Difficulty was based on the number of points, from one to 11.  The goal was to get 21 points.  Stempel had won for several weeks and seemed happy about it.  The catch was that the producers were feeding him the answers.  Enter Charles Van Doren.  His family is well known.  He’s good looking.  He’s basically more useful than Stempel, at least from an advertising standpoint.  The ratings have hit a plateau, so the producers want Stempel to take a dive.  He’s to answer a tough question incorrectly.

When the producers pitch the idea to Van Doren about, he is a bit nervous.  He doesn’t think it’s right, so they all laugh it off.  He appears on the show and seems to do well on his own.  Then, the moment of truth comes.  He’s asked a question that he knows they know he has the answer for.  It’s the very same question they overheard him answer in the office.  He has three choices.  He can admit what’s happening on national television and risk embarrassing everyone, assuming he’s even believed.  He can quietly take a dive as Stempel did and risk losing the game.  Instead, he chooses to give the correct answer.

He goes on to higher ratings (and more money) than Stempel.  Stempel goes back to his wife and neighborhood, ashamed that he had to miss such an easy question.  Stempel tries to hit up the network for more money.  He could easily be put on some sort of panel show or something.  The network politely declines.  Stempel threatens to sue, but that leads to sealed court records. Stempel now has no one to turn to.  That is, until Dick Goodwin comes knocking on his door.

Goodwin is a congressional investigator looking for a big story.  He wonders why the court records would need to be sealed.  He eventually knocks on Stempel’s door and finds his mother lode.  Since Stempel isn’t a particularly likable guy and he is the only witness, the investigation stalls.  It isn’t until Van Doren is subpoenaed that anything happens.  The network and sponsor deny everything.  Even if they had known, none of the accused actions were illegal, per se.  It’s tricky, since the questions and answers were said to be locked in a safe, but it was never expressly stated that contestants weren’t given the answers beforehand.  The producers are left to take the blame for everything.

There is a certain irony in that those in charge tried to play off the scandal in that the game show was little more than entertainment.  The facts are meaningless.  I’m sure that liberties were taken with the story here.  There is an implicit understanding that this is done, though.  It’s not the first movie to do so and won’t be the last.  We do go to movies to be entertained.  The issue with the game show was that they seemed to go to some trouble to make it look like the people were actually competing.

Interestingly, this entire story ends up being the basis for the format of a particular current game show.  The story goes that after the scandal had broken, it would be difficult to get a network to buy into a new quiz show.  Merv Griffin was discussing it with his wife, Julann.  She suggested that contestants be given the answers and would have to respond with questions.   From what I understand, the idea had been used before.  However, the recent history coupled with low prize amounts got the network’s approval.

I did enjoy the movie, but I’m curious as to why this particular era of TV history was chosen.  I’m not saying that it’s a story that doesn’t deserve to be told.  I’m just not sure if there was a lot of interest.  If you mentioned the scandal to most people, I’d imagine that they’d find it of passing interest at best.  (There are times I’ve told people things that I’ve found very interesting only to get, “um…ok,” as a response.)

There is a morality play that’s somewhat evident.  Stempel seems comfortable with the lie.  The story starts several weeks into his run on Twenty-One.  We don’t see him prepped or vetted.  We do get to see Van Doren auditioning for another game show.  He’s someone that is presented as an honest person to start with.

We imagine that Stempel was probably honest, too.  His reasons for going along with it are understandable.  Who would turn down easy money and fame?  He wants to be more financially independent.  He likes the respect he gets from people.  It’s almost like a drug for him.  Stempel is what any of us could easily become.

With Van Doren, it’s a little different.  He’s already well off.  He already has a name for himself and comes from a respectable family.  He’s being presented with the chance to make being bookish and nerdy more accessible to the common person.  If a guy like him can make a lot of money, why not try to be like him?  The problem is that it’s all based on a lie and Van Doren knew it.  He could treat it abstractly it all he wants, but once he goes down that road, he can never go back.

Stempel and Van Doren could easily have said nothing and have walked away.  Granted, some one else would have eventually spoken up or made a fatal mistake.  Goodwin did find evidence of the deception going through old tapes, so someone would have at least known something was going on.  Ultimately, Van Doren will always be the good guy gone bad and Stempel will have to live with being the guy who missed an easy question.


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