The newest member of the “reality TV” pantheon is CBS’ The Briefcase. It joins thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and 19 Kids and Counting on the long list of reasons not to own a TV or buy basic cable.
“Reality TV” is no stranger to controversy — both of the aforementioned shows were shrouded in it. Even overseas, where Czech TV is broadcasting Holiday in Protectorate, about a Czech family trying to survive without being noticed by Nazi occupiers, reality TV is particularly good at capturing the general awfulness of human and capitalist nature.
The Briefcase may well be one of the worst American reality TV shows to come along in awhile, however.
Poverty tourism gone primetime
Poverty tourism exists. The wealthy can pay money to visit ghettos and poor neighborhoods to “slum it” with the natives, and at the end of the day, return back to their wealthy resorts.
CBS’s new show is a twist on that, allowing viewers to experience all the joys of slum tourism in the comfort of their own living room.
The show begins by reminding us, “All across America, hard-working, middle-class families are feeling the impact of rising debt and shrinking paychecks.”
It soon becomes clear, however, that the show does not care.
The Briefcase features two “middle-class” families, who are both told that they’ll be participating in a “documentary” about money. The families are “middle-class” only in the loosest sense; they’re debt-ridden, single-breadwinner homes that are on the knife’s edge of destitution.
This, however, is a ruse; a producer arrives at their home instead, with a suitcase full of $101,000 dollars in cash. Rather than giving the cash over, however, there’s a catch. Each family is told about the other family that is “also in need,” and each family is given three choices: keep all the money, keep some of it, or give it all to the other family.
But neither family is aware that the other family also has a suitcase full of money.
Thus, the show asks its question: “What would you do with $101,000 dollars?” Do you seem selfless and giving — while drowning in debt and sliding into financial ruin — or do you seem heartless and greedy by trying to stabilize your own finances?
“The Briefcase” dilemma
Individuals familiar with game theory will recognize that this show shares traits with the prisoner’s dilemma, while not being entirely true to the original premise.
One of the more recent examples of something resembling the “prisoner’s dilemma” in pop culture comes from the second Batman film, The Dark Knight. In it, the Joker loads explosives on two ferries, one carrying citizens and the other carrying prisoners. The choice is simple: either ferry can blow up the other, or they can choose not to blow one another up and he’ll blow them both up. In the end, neither ferry blows the other up, both cooperate, and the Joker is left trying destroy them himself.
The message there is an extremely positive one. But that’s the point of the film’s narrative.
The narrative in The Briefcase is less “we can work together” and more “we can torture these poor people with the possibility of financial stability to rake in the ad dollars.” And what ad dollars they are — from commercials that talk about Cadillacs and tablets to credit card companies, it’s the very picture of rotten corporatism.
One might go so far as to call it an unethical social experiment, executed without the families’s consent, but that may be giving the empty suits who crafted this abomination too much credit.
A nail-studded ladder out of poverty
The families are given roughly $1,000 to spend on themselves, which is not a lot of money, but for families living in destitution, it can be a huge boon all the same.
After doing that, the show then moves to make sure as much guilt as possible over the eventual and final decision. Each family is given a small amount of information about the other family — including financial details, outstanding debts, salaries, and the like — and they even go on tours of the other family’s home. All that anguish is captured on camera and broadcast into your home, packaged neatly for primetime.
The families involved in the first episode are described as follows:
[T]he 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.
CBS promises that the show has a message of caring, sharing, and making people “question what matters most.” The real message, of course, is that big business has figured out yet another way to profit from poverty.
Watch the announcement for the show below:[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77lUAy8vwTo]
Featured image via screen capture from YouTube