The Briefcase premiered on CBS last week, a new show that inserts cameras into low-income people’s lives and engineers a wrenching financial and emotional decision for our entertainment. Essentially, a struggling family is given $101,000, then shown another family’s hardships and forced to decide how much to ‘greedily’ keep for themselves and how much to give to the other family.
The twist is that both families received a briefcase and none of the pain inflicted by the show was necessary, except to prove platitudes like “some things are more important than money,” or something about people’s inherent generosity.
The Briefcase is more explicitly exploitative than most shows, but it follows a common structure of reality TV. When producers dangle a career as a model or chef, or even just a lot of money in front of people, it’s considered license enough to subject them to most kinds of stress short of physical combat. Even in shows like Extreme Home Makeover, weeping (first desperate, later celebratory) is the cost of having your home remodeled to fit your family’s needs.
It’s all part of a conservative idea of ‘desert,’ that some people deserve hardship, while others deserve wealth, and that our economic system will generally give wealth and hardship out in a just way. A family that feels sure that they need the whole $100,000 is set up to be portrayed as monsters, people who deserved their poverty because of their innate badness.
But this standard applies only to the poor. We already know poor people are generous and rich people are greedy. There is, in fact, a large Briefcase-style experiment going on at all times in this country. The wealthiest 1 percent of families in the U.S. have inherited an average of $2.7 million, and that’s not counting the immense privilege that virtually guarantees they will remain obscenely wealthy for the rest of their lives. Yet, we never see them vomiting in anxiety about whether they should distribute all or most of that money to the less-fortunate.
Could reality TV change that?
Caveat: The shows that don’t create emotional agony in their low-income contestants would likely be considered too boring for TV. And the shows that attempt to humiliate the wealthy the way ‘poverty porn’ shows do to the poor would likely never fly because rich people are free to opt out without suffering financial hardship (Real Housewives notwithstanding).
Millionaire Misers: Rich family provides an accurate summary of its finances, then is forced to justify not giving each $100,000 above the median wealth to a few dozen poor families whose hardships they learn about in excruciating detail. Every family who is denied money is brought on the show as a surprise to cry and curse the rich family. Their hardships in coming months are documented and blamed explicitly on the Millionaire Misers.
Rich As Finns: The show follows three low-income young couples as they prepare for the birth of a child, assessing their meager options for work, time off, and finances. In a twist, they are instead given the generous benefits that families and children receive in Finland. The emotional, reality TV-ready payoff moment comes when the family realizes they’ll actually get to spend their child’s early months raising it instead of heading right back to work. There’s the option to follow a family that’s subject to the U.S. welfare system, but that may seem needlessly cruel.
Job Creators In Action: Follow around 20-somethings who never have to work due to inheritance, and measure the number and quality of the jobs they create. Panel of celebrities screams obscenities at them for being worthless.
I think these are all pretty good ideas.