But here goes: heavily in-debt, lower-middle-class families (if there is still such a status) sign on to be in a documentary about money. “What they don’t know” — as the announcer intones — is that they’ll end up receiving a black attaché case stuffed with stacks of green. ($101,000 to be exact)
But there’s more! They’re told they can keep it, or give some or all of it (only $100,000) away to another financially stressed family.
“Why would anyone having a hard time give away one cent of the money?” a tough-minded friend asked me. “That makes no sense.”
But it makes sense to an even-more-cynical TV producer who needs to yank the chains of his already falling and demoralized subjects in search of a higher reality concept to peddle. Despite the fact that the “unscripted” genre is now 22 years old (dating to the premiere of "The Real World" on MTV), and freak shows like “Honey Boo Boo,” and “19 Kids and Counting” have foul, if not illegal, back stories that have blown up in the producers’ faces, there still seems to be an appetite for reality-raunch.
And this financial Frankenstein really ratchets up the tension. Mixing elements of “Let’s Make a Deal,” “Wife Swap,” “Queen for a Day,” “The Millionaire,” and “A Christmas Carol” with good old-fashioned budget-shaming, “The Briefcase” is economy porn for the equally strapped. And that includes most of us, who, post-9/11, 2008, and the rise of the 1%, have fallen from the financial life we expected. It lets us get all voyeuristic, judge-y, and superior about other people’s lives.
Determining how much these families keep vs. how much they give away creates strife not only between the two families, but also between each husband and wife (or wife and wife.) Inevitably, one is focused and pragmatic and the other is more generous and selfless. (And these qualities do not divide along gender lines.)
It’s all limited to a window of 72 hours. There are tears; one woman even vomits. But first, we get to see their trailers and their pain.
And the producers really made an effort to find the modern Bob Cratchits among us.
The first episode features a young Iraqi war veteran who lost a leg, who lives in a third-floor walk-up apartment with his toddler and wife, a pregnant nurse and the family wage-earner. The other couple has three teenaged daughters and, due to the husband’s illness and previous job losses, a start-up ice cream business that’s been driven into the ground. Each family gets to poke around in the other family's house and bills, over lugubrious music. (Cue shots of three prosthetic limbs lined up in a bedroom.)
As with the ghost of Christmas past, the couple with the three teenagers saw an earlier version of themselves in the tough start of the war veteran/nurse family. And in the ghost of Christmas future, the guy with the artificial limb and his pregnant wife looked at the messy state of disrepair inside the older couples’ home (even though it’s a nice shell of a house in a middle-class suburb) and their junkyard company trucks, and lack of health insurance, and said, “Just shoot us if this turns out to be our future.” Actually, they didn’t. But what is interesting is that each felt less needy than the other.
Thus, the outcome is unbelievably feel-good: Each gave the other the entire $100, 000.
But this give-away bit could prove to be the show’s eventual albatross. The second episode was not as poetic or matchy-matchy. It pitted a couple who are both "little people," who have decent jobs and live in a tidy, nice furnished trailer home that they own, against a family with three kids (one with autism) who lost their business and had gone bankrupt in New York. The mother and kids were now living apart from the dad, who moved to Florida to earn a living as a fisherman. They visit him as much as they can in his RV, which is tiny and chaotic inside and barely holds two people, never mind five. The first couple has dreams of adopting a child from out of the country (who would also be a little person) but live “paycheck to paycheck.”
The other mother of three, who seems very emotional and guilt-ridden, immediately decides that the other couple’s dream of adopting a child is more deserving than her own three kids’ need for a stability. (They seem pretty desperate and live hand to mouth. Paycheck to paycheck would be a huge step up.)
In the “shocking and emotional reveal,” which comes after endless commercials, obvious tightening of the story vise, and tears, it ends up that the family of five gives the little couple (which is already the title of another TLC reality show) $40,000.
The little people (the wife is the tough one) give the fisherpeople $20,000. So the rapidly sinking family of five walks away with $80,000, and the homeowner couple get $120,000. This seems a bit outrageous, but the fisher-mother is happy, and says it’s enough to “clear up my bankruptcy.” (Cue super-judgey music.)
There’s little doubt that our economy is at a tipping point. The divisions are too extreme, and the center cannot hold. It’s good to shine a light on that story, one of hard-working people who, with the loss of the safety valves that the middle class used to have, still can’t survive.
But semi-poverty is not a competitive sport, nor should it play as an entertainment product. The way these people are manipulated is excruciating. And remember, they didn’t sign on to be dancers or Housewives. They were told this is a documentary. Ho-ho.
Meanwhile, the show’s creator/executive producer, David Broome, (who also created the similarly brutal and much-attacked “Biggest Loser”) is now fighting back from all the criticism to the show. “The takeaway is to educate and inform,” he told the New York Post. “I want to make shows that make a difference — and that’s what ‘The Briefcase’ is all about.”
Right. Making a difference for his pocket, and that of CBS. (I hope the show doesn’t get picked up, but it probably will.)
Meanwhile, Broome gets to appear on camera, like some sort of saint, delivering the money to his shocked and crying subjects. (Nobody makes a bed of it or uses it to light their cigars, sadly.)
Most of the faux-transparency here comes from the shots that pull back to show the camera crew filming: a real inside look. At the same time, it’s true that most the subjects who signed on for a documentary end up walking away with money.
Why would anyone give the money away? Because they were manipulated, overwhelmed, and feeling pressured, knowing they were going to be judged on television. And they wanted to feel better about themselves.
That hardly seems like a fair bargain on either end.