If you’ve ever sat and watched ABC’s seven o’clock hour, you know that it is dedicated to the televised art of intellectual competition and knowledge. Shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune have not only been a regular part of Americans’ routines in the last 40 years but also a pivotal part of pop culture. Hulu’s Quiz Lady explores that idea through the eyes of a dowdy and by-the-book accountant and looks at how TV can guide and protect our relationships.
Directed by Jessica Yu, Quiz Lady opens with a brief history of Anne (Awkwafina) and Jenny’s (Sandra Oh) relationship, two sisters with a significant age gap living in a dysfunctional family. Every night, no matter if her parents were fighting or if Jenny was freaking out over boys or money, Anne would turn on “Can’t Stop The Quiz” and be comforted by the sounds of a jeopardy-like trivia game.
After an issue at their mother’s retirement home, the down-on-her-luck aimless Jenny decides to temporarily stay the night, much to the chagrin of Anne and her grumpy neighbor (Holland Taylor). When she discovers her sister’s talent and passion for the quiz never waivered, she records and posts a video of Anne answering every question correctly. With her sister’s newfound fame, Jenny tries to get Anne out of her shell and onto the show.
Quiz Lady feels like Tommy Boy and the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler vehicle Sisters had a baby. It’s charming and surprisingly sweet. The chemistry between Awkwafina and Sandra Oh is electric and fun. While this role feels right in the former’s wheelhouse, the latter steps into the goofy carefree sister role with some missteps. However, Oh is brilliant at bringing out the nuance and emotional beats of the character. Her often biting delivery provides laughs and commentary as the veteran actress can switch between the two on a dime.
As host Terry McTeer, Will Ferrell continues a trend he started on Barbie. Like the blockbuster hit, Quiz Lady features the comedian in a supporting role. It’s just enough Ferrell that he doesn’t distract from the protagonists’ journey. He’s there for a few laughs but not enough to steal the show. It helps that his host seems to be modeled after the best, combining the fatherly and witty nature of Alex Trebek (who he famously played a version of on SNL), the spine of Pat Sajak, and the showmanship of Allen Lidden. It is worth noting that his production company, Gloria Sanchez, made the film, but if it means Ferrell uses his comedy genius to promote female voices and stories, he’s doing something right.
When Quiz Lady slips into broader comedy strokes, it doesn’t work as well. There’s a whole poop scene and a stolen dog subplot that aren’t so much annoying as they take away from the film’s pathos. But when Sandra Oh and Awkwafina are bickering back and forth or Will Ferrell is channeling the quiz show hosts we know and love, it’s hard to turn away from it. Quiz Lady is about the personal and parasocial relationships that ground us and give us a purpose and though not executed perfectly, the film is a real winner.
Quiz Lady is streaming now on Hulu.