Quiz Show (1994)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

It’s 1958. Twenty One is ABC’s most popular quiz show, and Herb Stempel, a volatile nerd, is the reigning champion. Realizing that Herb’s popularity has plateaued, and that Charles Van Doren, a handsome young college professor, would bring in far more viewers, Producer Dan Enright rigs the show by feeding Van Doren the answers, and forcing Stempel to flub an easy question. Outraged, Stempel goes on the war path, suing Enright and ABC in federal court. His litigation catches the attention of Dick Goodwin, special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the House Of Representatives (a position absolutely as boring as it sounds), and the two embark on a quest to expose the fraudulent nature of both Twenty One, and all game shows. And now we have a big courtroom drama, directed by Robert Redford, and starring John Turturro.

Quiz Show is a film I’d never heard of before. I only became aware of its existence after I stumbled upon it while idly scrolling through the “period pieces” section on Netflix. I was shocked, to say the least. I mean, a big budget movie, made by a famous director, with top tier talent, that got good reviews, which I’d never heard of before? Impossible. Surely there was a mistake. Surely this film, which currently holds a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was some sort of unsung masterpiece; a diamond in the rough, if you will. I simply had to watch it. I had to spread the word; to make others aware of its brilliance. Well, having just sat down and watched Quiz Show, I can understand why no one remembers it, and why it bombed at the box office when it first came out.

IT’S SO BORING! I’m talking grass growing, paint drying, doing your taxes level dull. It’s about two and a half hours long, and a good chunk of it consists of scenes that add nothing to the overall narrative. Scenes like Dick Goodwin going to buy a car, Dick Goodwin having sex with his wife, Charles van Doren running into his father at a restaurant, and Charles Van Doren throwing his father a birthday party. I suppose they’re meant to build character, but they really, really don’t. They just come off as pointless padding, and they leave you scratching your head, and checking your watch. And just as with La la Land, you never feel invested in the story because there are no stakes. What the movie boils down to is a bitter man, Stempel, trying to prove that TV game shows are rigged. Who cares? Who cares if game shows are rigged? I just assumed everyone knew that going in. Next thing you know you’ll be telling me professional wrestling and reality television are staged. Besides, rigging a game show to make it more dramatic isn’t, technically speaking, illegal. And even if it was, the movie makes Stempel out to be such an unlikable character that you don’t want to see him prevail. You don’t want him to pull back the curtain. You don’t want the world to find out that game shows are fake. Also, I have to ask, who the hell watches game shows anymore? I understand this is a period piece, but Redford was making this film for modern audiences. He had to have known that people probably didn’t care about quiz shows anymore. Combine this–the slow pacing, pointless scenes, and very low stakes–with lackluster dialogue and some questionable acting–I’m referring, of course, to Rob Morrow’s awful Boston accent–and you’ve got a dull, pointless, and ultimately forgettable movie. I totally understand why no one went to go see this when it came out, and why history has largely forgotten it. It’s terrible. Don’t watch it.

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2 thoughts on “Quiz Show (1994)

  1. I don’t know. I like Herb Stemple and I wanted him to prevail and win. He was really smart and he should have been allowed to burn out or prevail on his own. It’s true that I am old and I remember game shows and you don’t , but if I thought they were all rigged, then why would I EVER watch them at all? It’s not like fictional TV, where we know going In that they are just stories and not to be believed. Also, I do think it is illegal to “fix” them or there would not have been any story at all.
    And Game shows ARE boring EXCEPT for the fact that there IS chance involved, and wits, and a dash of luck, and you never know who is going to win. And if they are legitimate, then we all have the hope of someday going on the show ourselves. But if your wits don’t count for anything, and if it is all fixed then what’s the point?
    Plus audiences invested lots of their personal time and energy sitting down collectively at the same time on the same day every week watching these shows, (this was in the days before Netflix,) cheering for an individual to win. By pure virtue of the time we invested in watching the guy win from week to week, we had a stake in the win. And we got to know the charachters “personally,” over time.
    This is kind of like Woodward and Bernstein exposing watergate to me, once we knew that everything was crooked, we never trusted politicians anymore. These revelations changed everything. Games shows we now know are not to be trusted either. Just add them to the list.
    You are right though that drawing back the curtain sometimes reveals too much of a subject. So I think that not only Herb Stemple was betrayed in this movie, but all the audience members too who once believed and had hope.
    I can understand why this was hard for someone who did not live at this time to relate to, but I thought it was a really good movie, I liked the script, and I thought the cinematography and acting were good too. (Except maybe for the accent.)

  2. Actually, your reaction is a good lesson for you as a screen writer. If you write a script about something that most of your audience members can not relate to anymore because they did not live at that time, it is bound to be rejected and misunderstood because it is being judged in a different context and by different standards, even if it is about a universal theme like the underdog fighting for justice. But this movie came out when most of the audience members still remembered the experience of sitting around and watching the game shows from week to week, and that is why it is beloved by many.

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