The Occasional TV Review

I was cleaning up in the kitchen tonight, and as I often do, the TV was on in the background, just to keep me occupied. And after Wheel of Fortune ended for the evening, the CBS prime-time slate kicked in with the reality show The Briefcase.

Ordinarily, I avoid reality television like the plague. At its worst, it caters to people’s need to see other people often at their worst, and at its best, it’s really just a vehicle for people to make money by making some statement that isn’t that valuable in the first place. Either way, most reality TV amounts to nothing more than an hour’s worth of societal navel-gazing.

The Briefcase laid out it’s premise pretty quickly in the show: you have two families, both middle class, both struggling financially for a variety of reasons, and the producers introduce a briefcase containing $101,000 to each family. Then the families are given a simple set of instructions: keep all of the money to use as they wish, or give none, some, or all of the money to another family who they will learn about through text messages gradually over the next 72 hours. At the end of those three days, they need to make a decision, but at the end of that time, they will be flown to Los Angeles to meet the other family and will present their final decision to the other family in that meeting. Oh…the first $1,000 is for them to spend however they want, just to have fun, because the next three days will be hell, and the whole country can watch their agony for no good reason other than it fills an hour of television time.

My God, that’s a horrible concept for a TV show.

Okay, so you can search the interwebs for other commentary on the show, and you’ll find a mixed bag of reaction, but most of it is negative and loud about how it’s class warfare taken to the airwaves. And it is that, surely. But not for many of the reasons I’ve seen in these online reviews.

Let’s begin with the obvious: the producers and creators of the show have no idea what it’s like to be in the same position as any of the families they have or will present. They’ve never struggled to the degree these people have struggled. They’ve never spent a minute worrying about how they’ll dig their way out of whatever financial crisis is afflicting them this time. And because of that, they don’t understand that their entire concept for the show is flawed.

I’m pretty sure that their thought is that somehow, both families end up with $100,000. And I’m thinking the money is pretty irrelevant to the bigger hope by the producers that there will be deep, emotional discussions about the family struggles, but also the larger need to be kind to one’s fellow man. And I’m sure there will be huge amounts of angst and sleepless nights. And for this, there will be spectators because someone decided it’s good TV…

I just threw up in my mouth a little…

Here’s the thing, and I’m sure the creators/producers don’t understand this because they’ve never been in that position, but if you’ve ever struggled financially–and I don’t mean falling behind on a couple of bills; I mean thinking you’ve hit rock bottom, and then finding that the pit keeps on going–you know the feeling every single one of these families has. You know the thoughts every single one of them will have all the way through the show. And frankly, none of it is entertaining.

If you’ve been there, you know that you are working your ass off just to keep what you have together and to not fall any further down that pit. You’re focused on keeping your family healthy and happy. You’re doing what you need to to keep some food on the table, a roof over everyone’s heads, and clothes on everyone’s backs. And deep down, you keep hoping and dreaming about that moment–everyone who’s been there knows that moment–that turns everything around: a windfall, that job offer that pays what you need to make ends meet, or that opportunity that gives you the push to get over the barrier that’s keeping you down right now. In that position, everyone dreams about that. And it’s an emotional thing to be in that position. You’re tense, sad, nervous, anxious, but also happy and glad to have what you do have. And you’re hopeful. Always hopeful for that dream.

So imagine the thoughts and feeling when you open a briefcase holding $101,000. It’s the break, the windfall, the answer to every prayer and dream you’ve had for months or years. Then comes the caveat: the other family who’s in just as much trouble as you. And it’s all thrown at these families within the first few minutes of the show.

What the creators of the show almost certainly didn’t realize is that all of the families they think they’re helping have been living in this hole for so long that they’ve found that comfortable place. As long as things don’t get worse, they can get by. They provide for the basic needs of the family and they are comfortable in what they have. Having been there, I always new that there were those worse off than me and my family. So as much as having the opportunity to take the money is uplifting, the anguish over what to do with it is mean, especially since these families don’t know that the other family is in the exact same position. The “game,” if it can be called that, is rigged because both sides have the money. And while the producers say that it’s a win for both families because of that, it’s a horrible thing to do to another human being.

In short, the showrunners are inflicting three days of anguish and hell on these families in the name of entertainment, and it’s only costing them $200,000. Even though the producers have gone to great lengths to say in the show and in interviews that these families are not poor (they’re emphatically “middle class”) it’s still a form of class warfare because the middle class families shown are being emotionally manipulated by those who are clearly not middle class.

Sadly, this smacks a bit like some sci-fi story, where in the dystopian future, people are offered money to have the most emotional parts of their lives displayed on TV. It is the case of someone waving a reward while saying “dance, monkey, dance!”

I don’t know whether I’m pleased or sad to say I watched 10 minutes of this televised train wreck before I just physically couldn’t take it any longer.