By now, it’s no secret that the vast majority of reality programs have moved on from depicting “reality” to focus, instead, on manipulating and exploiting their participants. It’s why we so often claim that reality shows are a guilty pleasure — we’re not talking about the guilt of watching a bad television program (we do plenty of that when it comes to scripted series) so much as the guilt of watching television overpower and control people, and of willfully supporting loathsome, and sometimes even damaging, television franchises solely because they’re mindlessly entertaining. The newest example of this kind of program is CBS’ The Briefcase, a somewhat cruel series that exploits lower-middle-class families by essentially teasing them with riches — $100,000 — and then forcing them to choose between keeping all of the money or giving some of it to another family in need.
The Briefcase, which premieres tomorrow night on CBS, is also the latest version of the reality show subgenre of series that operate under the guise of being positive and helpful (as its marketing suggests) but are actually a gross viewing experience. In each episode, two couples agree to participate in a documentary about money, only to learn that they’re actually the recipients of a briefcase filled with $101,000 ($1000 of which they get to spend immediately, with no consequences).
The cameras shamelessly capture the couples’ happiness — the emotional responses include squeals of disbelief, joyous tears, and immediate musings on what they can accomplish with the money (pay off mortgages, adopt a child, etc.) — before the producers reveal that there is, of course, a catch. (“No, you can’t take it back! You gave it to me!” one of the wives cries in the pilot episode, joking-but-definitely-not-really-joking.) The couples can either keep all of the $100,000, keep some of it, or give it all away — to another family they don’t know. The other catch is that each family doesn’t know that the second family also has a briefcase; they don’t know that it’s possible for them to still get $100,000 even if they give all of their own money away.
Throughout each hour-long episode, the couple spends three days debating what to do with the money (sometimes with the help of family members, like their children) as they get sporadic text messages revealing details about the other family. In the pilot episode, the couple we follow is in debt after the husband had a heart attack, lost his job, and opened an ice cream truck business (that is only lucrative in the summer and, also, two trucks broke down and one was involved in a head-on collision) while his wife works a part-time job where she makes $300 a week to help take care of their daughters. The other couple includes a pregnant woman and her Iraq veteran husband, who lost his leg in combat; they are currently in the process of moving from their third-story apartment to a house that is wheelchair friendly.
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.