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When Charles Van Doren turns his own deception into a confession and then a performance before Congress, wins back the country's heart, and transforms a question of morality into another TV drama show, his angelic features assume a subtly demonic cast. He's corrupt enough at the start of his odyssey to be corrupted completely later, just self-deluding enough to convince himself that his corruption is too marginal to matter, and just smug enough to think he can get away with it all. He's the snake who got television kicked out of the garden. He has no real shame, only the illusion of shame; he knows that as long as he puts on a good show, all will be forgiven.
And indeed, when he reads to a congressional subcommittee a statement of contrition and regret, his senatorial inquisitors greet it with rapt, almost childlike appreciation -- not because they believe his words, but because they liked the moistness in his eyes and the boyish catch in his voice. "That was one of the most soul-searching confessions I've ever heard," says one man on the subcommittee. Only a senator from New York -- played by screenwriter Attanasio's father, Joseph -- isn't taken in. "With all due respect to my fellow subcommittee members," he says, "I don't think any man should be commended for simply, at long last, telling the truth."
Quiz Show is saying that despite television's most concerted efforts, ethics still exist. It's saying that in the ongoing drama that is America, even quiz shows are important; they might seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't change the fact that a lie is still a lie. It's saying that over the years, and over the airwaves, even seemingly small moral transgressions can erode our collective standards and coarsen our spirits. Considering we live in an era of Oprah! and Donahue and Hard Copy -- an era that has allowed crass public exhibitionism to replace private shame as our official method of expressing guilt and contrition -- that statement is bold indeed.
And here's what it's asking: If you're willing to commit small breaches of trust, what will you do when you're confronted with something really important? How likely are you to claim that your race, class, and idiosyncratic moral code excuse your behavior? How low will you sink to trade scorn for applause? And how likely are you to put your hands together when other people do it?
These questions are by no means new; they've been analyzed and picked apart for five decades now. But I don't think any Hollywood melodrama has ever examined them quite as thoroughly and with as much respect for human frailty as Quiz Show does. It's a brilliant game of Q&A that never, for one moment, tries to feed you the answers.
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