As if to prove there are new depths to be plumbed in the world of reality television (because who knew?), CBS just debuted The Briefcase, a show which takes poverty porn, class anxiety, emotional manipulation and exploitation and packages them all neatly into a pretty despicable hour of primetime television. Kicking off each episode with the question, “What would you do with $101,000?” the show then deep-dives into a competition that asks two unwitting, financially strapped families to choose between two no-win options: being financially solvent yet appearing heartless and greedy, or drowning in debt yet having audiences recognize them as selfless and giving.
It’s hard to imagine a network executive didn’t get the idea for this show from the “Button, Button” episode of the Twilight Zone. The Briefcase focuses on two “middle-class” families—a questionable but highly American take on the phrase, since both are debt saddled, with one primary breadwinner, and essentially living on the edge of financial ruin. Both are told they’ll be participating in a documentary about money. Instead, a producer from the show unexpectedly comes to their house with a suitcase full of cold, hard cash: $101,000 to be exact. That could be a life-changing – and in the case of families so near the financial cliff, nearly life-saving – sum of money. But this being reality TV, instead of just giving them the cash, there’s a major catch.
Both families are informed that somewhere out there, there’s another family “who’s also in need,” and are given a choice: “You can keep all of the money, you can keep some of the money, or you can give it all away.” Neither family knows that the other family also has a suitcase full of cash and is debating how much, if any, they’ll share. And since both families were originally told they were merely going to be the subjects of a documentary, neither of them really signed up for this exercise in televised torture.
What follows, predictably, is a gut-wrenching look at the two families being guilted this way and that over whether to choose charity or financial survival. In the first episode, the Bergins of North Carolina, a family of five—mom, Kim; dad, Drew; and three teenage daughters—are trying to make do on Kim’s salary of $15.50 an hour, since Drew’s ice cream truck business is failing. And in New Hampshire, the Bronsons—featuring dad Dave, an Iraq war vet who lost his leg in combat—are scraping by on the earnings of mom Cara, who works the night shift as a nurse and is pregnant with their second child.
The families are told they have to take the first $1,000 and spend it on themselves, which is basically a way of giving people who've been in dire straits for eons a fleeting taste of the kind of the financially carefree existence they'll soon have to feel bad about wanting. From there on, the show does all it can to ensure the decision over the money is as guilt-ridden and uncomfortable as possible. Each clan is, bit by bit, given information about each others' lives—including financial details, outstanding debts and shortfall salaries—and even allowed to tour each others’ houses. If you have any doubt about the cynicism that birthed CBS’s latest show, watch as mom Kim spots Dave’s prosthetic leg. It induces just the level of empathy—and guilt; always with the guilt—you might expect, and ensures exactly the sort of anguish CBS was hoping to capture on camera.
The whole thing is, in a word, gross. We’re told via voiceover at the show’s outset that, “All across America, hard-working, middle-class families are feeling the impact of rising debt and shrinking paychecks.” That’s absolutely true, and CBS’s answer to that problem is apparently to exploit those families in ways that startle, even at this stage in the reality TV game. Make no mistake: The Briefcase is a good show to watch if you want to see a television network last valued at $30 billion ask families that are near to losing everything to battle over the very thing the network has in near endless supply: money. It is a stark acting out of how the wealthiest ask those with far less to battle over scraps, to be generous in ways they would never consider, to smile for the camera through tears for our own entertainment. And since there’s no such thing in this awful reality TV landscape as bad press—and this show has gotten plenty of it—it may likely become a hit.
Granted, this is no real-life Hunger Games, but it’s an unfair position to place these families in. CBS promises that the show, with its ostensible message of sharing and caring, “will make you question what matters most.” But after the spouses are done fighting, the ads are done running (when I watched online, these included commercials for things the families might find out of reach — such as Cadillacs and fancy new tablets — as well as ads from companies that helped land them in debt — including credit card purveyors) and all the decisions are made on how the cash will be split, you’re mostly left with the knowledge that a corporate behemoth has found yet another way to profit off of poverty. It’s not a new trick, but it’s a particularly bold display. One I hope most of us choose to turn away from.