Richard Goodwin, Paul Attanasio, and Robert Redford, 1994
If I watched any TV before the age of four I have no memory of it. At four I had a set routine: Sesame Street at 4:00 p.m., Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at 5:00, and The Electric Company at 5:30. Then I discovered game shows, and was instantly hooked. My favorite was called Whew!, but I watched ’em all: The Price Is Right, Match Game 78/79, Tic Tac Dough, Beat the Clock. When my preschool teacher asked the members of my class what we wanted to be when we grew up for a poster project, I said that I wanted to be a game show contestant. She asserted that “game show contestant” was not a career, and I suppose it isn’t, but by age nine I was making my own income as a regular video panelist on a game show called Child’s Play, alongside fellow kids such as Breckin Meyer and Tara Reid. I actually paid for my first car with game show money, which I didn’t have legal access to until I turned eighteen and which I didn’t have actual access to until some time after that. So I didn’t get the car until around the time this movie came out.
Quiz Show is about an earlier generation of game shows, and in particular a show called Twenty-One, which had been sinking in the ratings until, in early 1957, it was buoyed by a months-long winning streak by Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren that captured public attention to the point that Van Doren landed on the cover of Time, the leading character in a story about, as the diagonal banner would have it, “BRAINS V. DOLLARS ON TV”. The “dollars” part shouldn’t be understated: while the game shows of my youth rarely offered prizes much pricier than “a nyooooo CARRRR!!”, those of the 1950s had significantly higher stakes. Probably the biggest game show of the era was The $64,000 Question, the #1 ranked show of 1955-56 and the only show to beat out I Love Lucy between 1952 and 1957. In 2023 dollars, that’s a top prize of nearly $750,000. Charles Van Doren won over $1 million in 2023 dollars on Twenty-One, and as the sponsor played by Martin Scorsese explains, that’s why people were tuning in—not to see “some amazing display of intellectual ability”, but because “they just wanted to watch the money”. But most involved in the enterprise hadn’t quite caught on to that yet, and that’s where the “brains” part comes in. Twenty-One was a lot more challenging than today’s game shows. A recent episode of Jeopardy! asked contestants to name the character Tybalt killed in a famous Shakespeare play. A similar question on a 1957.0603 episode of Twenty-One required contestants to name the killers of Hamlet, Laertes, Tybalt, Richard III, and Othello—miss even one part out of five, and contestants would lose all the points at stake (and the money those points represented—over $380,000 today). And even that was easier than the eleven-point version, which required contestants to name both the plays Claudius, Duncan, Oberon, and Alonso appeared in and the countries or people those characters ruled—i.e., eight parts, all of them necessary, with over $430,000 in 2023 dollars hanging in the balance. These sorts of questions proved too tough for the contestants on the first episode that aired; though I haven’t been able to find video of it, according to those involved, the sponsors at Pharmaceuticals, Inc., were furious as they watched half an hour go by with the score stuck at zero to zero, and demanded that changes be made to make the next episode go more like the unaired pilot. Producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman did not make the questions easier. They and their team just started scripting the shows. They gave contestants the answers and told them when to get questions right, when to get them wrong, when to bite their lips, when to mop their brows. By 1958, allegations that the quiz shows were rigged had begun to make their way into the press, and evidence was piling up. A grand jury was convened. Congressional hearings were held. At one of these, at the end of 1959, Charles Van Doren testified that, despite his M.A. in astrophysics and Ph.D. in English, he too had not relied on his own knowledge to win but had instead been given the answers in advance and followed the scripts.
Quiz Show was applauded by many critics for going deeper than most films in examining the workings of privilege. It puts forward a dogged investigator—for while the real quiz show scandals were not exposed by a lone wolf, when you write the book on which the movie is based you get to cast yourself as the hero—who catches the bad guys, who respond by giving him a pat on the head and telling him to run along. Yes, the president of NBC, the very picture of a corporate fat cat, has to come down to the Capitol for a hearing… where the senators schmooze with him about the rounds of golf they’ve played together and pretend to believe his lies about having no involvement in the fraud. The same goes for the head of Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Dan Enright is the biggest fish the investigator is able to land, as he serves as the designated fall guy; he declares that he and Freedman came up with the rigging scheme on their own with no pressure from the network or sponsors. But those higher-ups remember his loyalty, and after a cooling-down period, they help him resurrect his career with a new game show, The Joker’s Wild. Even someone as far down the food chain as Charles Van Doren discovers that after admitting to deceiving the American public, he receives a chorus of commendations from the senators for his belated honesty.
But perhaps it’s no surprise that Van Doren should find himself treated as a member of the in-crowd, as that was supposed to be the heart of his appeal. Twenty-One’s long-running champion prior to Van Doren was Herb Stempel, whom Enright had selected calculating that a socially awkward Jewish postal worker from Queens might play so poorly in Peoria that people would tune in just to root against him. Enright even ordered Stempel to get a bad haircut and wear ill-fitting clothes to complete the effect. Then one day Charles Van Doren, son of Pulitzer winner Mark Van Doren and nephew of Pulitzer winner Carl Van Doren, walked through the door, and Enright knew he had his hero: as a member of the crew put it, Van Doren was a “clean-cut intellectual” who made a perfect foil for the “freak with a sponge memory”. But how is a pedigreed Ivy League academic whose family owned a tony estate in Connecticut any more relatable than Stempel? I thought about this, and it occurred to me that the narrative the film assigns to Van Doren is a familiar one. It would be hard to call Charles Van Doren an underachiever, but prior to his appearances on Twenty-One, he was firmly in the shadow of his father and uncle. How will the son emerge from his father’s shadow? “He won’t” doesn’t make for a very satisfying story. “He will elbow his father aside and surpass him in his own field” is a little better, but not by much: if the father isn’t a bad guy, for him to wind up as the loser of a conflict leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. Ideally, then, the answer is for the son to make a name for himself in a new way: though he might never outshine Mark Van Doren as a professor at Columbia, Charles could serve as an ambassador for the life of the mind outside the classroom, reaching a whole new audience through their television sets. And doesn’t that fall into the same basic category as what Shakespeare did with Prince Hal, and Marvel did with Thor, and the Republican Party did with George W. Bush? Here’s a son from a noble family. Perhaps in his youth he is a bit of a fuckup, and it seems like he may not be worthy of his heritage. But never fear! He does prove himself worthy, and if his style is different from his father’s, it just goes to show that greatness must be reinvented with each new generation! But… aren’t these stories essentially pushing the argument that, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first glance, give ’em a chance and you’ll see that privileged assholes deserve their privilege? Given that the vast majority of us are commoners, why would so many of us eat up this sort of propaganda for the aristocracy? Maybe some of it is that, while we like to imagine that we live in a meritocracy, keeping up with the news or studying history makes it clear that the world is and pretty much always has been run largely by the failsons of previous generations’ achievers. That is hard to accept. And it’s a lot harder to change the world than it is to flee into a comforting ideology that we are all in our proper places even if it doesn’t always seem like it.
Gustav Holst, 1918
Ellie recently returned to the Bay Area from Portland; we had discussed moving somewhere with a lower cost of living, like Sacramento or Albuquerque, but I insisted that I didn’t want to leave the cultural amenities to which I had become accustomed. By this I mainly meant the Berkeley Bowl, but it occurred to me that, hey, if I’m going to maintain that I gotta live within the metro area of an alpha class global city, I should probably take advantage of what it has to offer. Like, I’ve spent twenty-three years of my life just a short BART ride away from San Francisco town, and I’ve never been to the symphony! And, sure, most classical music doesn’t really do much for me, but still, I should go at least for the experience, right? So I looked at the calendar, and there in the last week of October were three days with The Planets on offer.
When I was a kid, my father would occasionally shell out for high-end audio equipment. In the ’70s he got an amazing space-age stereo with no buttons, just recessed depressions that would activate with the touch of a finger—I would love to be able to find a picture, but I don’t remember enough about it to come up with the right search terms. Then in the mid-’80s he was an early adopter of the compact disc player. The thing is, so far as I can tell, he didn’t actually like music. The only CD I ever remember him buying was the 1986 Montreal Symphony recording of The Planets. I listened to it a few times, but it just sort of bounced off me. The first time any part of The Planets clicked for me was when I happened across a prog version of “Mars, the Bringer of War” on an Emerson, Lake & Powell cassette that was kicking around the house (I think my brother bought it? or maybe I bought it and promptly forgot). The first time a classical rendition of The Planets clicked for me was when I rewatched Cosmos and found myself drawn to “Neptune, the Mystic”, which eventually became my standard answer on those rare occasions that I was asked what my favorite piece of classical music was. So that’s the first movement and the last. As for the middle five… well, the fact that I was familiar with two-sevenths of the music made this a much better prospect than anything else on the calendar. I asked Ellie whether she wanted to go and she said yes, so I got us a couple of tickets. Initially the conductor was supposed to be someone named Daniel Harding, but he dropped out to do some performances in Israel, which were then canceled due to the region becoming a war zone. Oops! Taking his place was Elim Chan, conductor of the Antwerp Symphony; I have read that she is apparently on the short list to take over at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2026, so that seems like a pretty big get.
There was another swap in the program, as the opening piece was changed from On Wenlock Edge to Les Illuminations, which was meaningless to me since I’d never heard of either. And, yeah, I got nothing out of Les Illuminations, but as opening acts go at least it was better than the rapper at the Poppy concert. But then came the main event. And again, I am about as far as you can get from a classical music expert, but I have listened to quite a few performances of The Planets on Youtube over the years, and this sounded better than any recording I’ve ever found. I don’t know whether that is because a concert hall is going to sound better than any recording or whether it’s because of Chan’s conducting choices, but yeah, if I could hear any performance of The Planets again, it’d be this one. I think the San Francisco version of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” is a good illustration of why. The vast majority of the music I listen to is based around guitars and drums. These are instruments with attack: you pluck a string or hit a drum head or cymbal, and there’s a sharp sound that then decays. Orchestral instruments such as bowed strings and woodwinds, by contrast, tend to produce sound that seems to come out of nowhere: instead of an attack, there’s a swell of music, and it can actually be kind of magical to be surrounded by an ocean of beautiful sound and to know intellectually that it’s coming from those instruments down there on the stage, but not to see the correspondence between the musicians’ motions and the sound roaring out of the amps that’s so obvious at a rock show. There were plenty of oceanic moments at this concert, but I was struck by how much more attack there was than on a typical recording of The Planets. “Saturn” begins with two harps and four flutes combining to play an alternating pair of unusual chords—I think at one point the harps were playing a suspended second sharp fifth over a minor seventh played by the flutes—and those harp players plucked those strings with such force that the chords doubled as a sort of percussion. Ellie and I got there very early and I watched one harp player spend the better part of half an hour practicing that exact part. It paid off: the effect was awesome, and vaulted “Saturn” up my list of favorites. On most recordings of “Venus, the Bringer of Peace”, the celesta at the end is just a faint tinkling; here it became a lead instrument. And again, on most performances of “Neptune” I’ve heard, when the orchestra gives way to the offstage female choir, it’s essentially just another phase in one long fadeout, but the San Francisco version turned it into a grand culmination of the suite. Now, maybe it struck me that way because I was sitting up in the balcony, and the singers out in the hall were actually closer to me than were the musicians onstage. But long ago I had read that, in an age before fadeouts could be done with the turn of a knob, Holst had achieved the effect he wanted by having the unseen choir sing a wordless chorus in a room offstage, and a stagehand was to bring the performance to a close by very slowly closing the door so their vocals would grow quieter and quieter until the door clicked shut. I thought this would all take place out of view and how the effect was achieved would just be academic knowledge. But no—the door that the stagehand shut was the door I came in, and I could see it plain as day. Given that “Neptune” is pretty much the only piece of classical music I know anything about, it was probably the single most satisfying thing I could have seen at the symphony.
One concluding gripe, however: are people today just incapable of going thirty seconds without talking, even at a classical music concert? Even a rendition as vibrant and percussive as this one is going to have quiet parts where the beauty lies in the subtleties. You know what you should do during those parts? Shut the fuck up!