The Briefcase gets increasingly invasive, even allowing the couples to go visit the other family’s house while they aren’t home. They look at old family photos — in one episode, which features a little-people couple, someone glances at all the photos on the fridge and concludes that the married couple looks pretty happy, implying that maybe they don’t need so much money — test the sinks to see if there’s hot water, and even flip through medical bills to calculate a stranger’s debt and compare it to their own. It’s a perverse, poverty-dick-measuring contest, and the producers eat it up, egging the participants on. “Because they’re little people, is that making you want to give more?” a Briefcase driver asks the couple in the backseat, who struggle to give a truthful but politically correct answer.
As if the basic decision each couples is faced with weren’t enough, the producers further the manipulation by creating more conflicts within the household. First, one-half of the couple goes to the bank alone to decide how much to give and how much to keep, leading to inevitable arguments about personal finances and the choice between survival and selflessness.
CBS is promoting The Briefcase as an uplifting, eye-opening experience for both the participants and the viewers. The economy is terrible, but a few people are good enough to give away some of their money! Isn’t that nice! But any goodwill that The Briefcase is hoping to showcase (a goal that obviously comes way, way after “make it big in the ratings”) is canceled out by the series’ mere existence, and even more so by its execution. It pits poor families against poor families and forces rifts between family members for the sake of entertainment. Most of all, it tries to lure viewers in by sensationalizing financial setbacks as if they’re the plot of a terrible indie film — look at the veteran with the war injury, or the couple with an autistic kid, or the little person who just wants to have a baby but is physically incapable of doing so — but never giving the characters the third-act savior that they need.
The Briefcase exists in a world of adages — there are things more important than money, money can’t buy happiness, etc. But there’s a reason why these sayings only have such appeal to people who already have money, such as The Briefcase‘s creator (David Broome, who’s also responsible for The Biggest Loser) and the CBS executives who put it on air.