Reality television has never been accused of being a showcase of humanity’s best traits. There are any number of ways to excoriate reality TV, but really, we all have a reality show guilty pleasure or two (I’m addicted to MasterChef). Some shows may plumb the depths of our dark side, but there is almost always a moral lesson, whether it’s intentional or not.
Just when reality programming seemed to hit a new low, CBS brings us an offering whose entire premise is the exploitation and vilification of the middle- and lower-class families that are fighting day after day to keep their families fed. Producers find a “financially struggling” (their term) family and hand them $101,000 before pulling the rug out from under them by presenting another struggling family, then making them choose between crawling out of debt and looking like monsters, or gifting the money to the other family at the expense of their own. Neither family knows that the other is given the same choice, instead believing themselves to be part of a documentary on America’s working poor.
The Briefcase is, in essence, poverty pornography; showcasing class anxiety, emotional manipulation (one woman even vomits over the stress of her decision), dissolving family structures, and the “moral failing” of being poor, all for our amusement. The levels of deception are deep here, all of them at the expense of people that can barely make ends meet. Considering Les Moonves, president of CBS, made over $54 million last year ($101,000 dollars comes out to 0.2% of that by the way), there is an immediate disconnect between the show and its subjects. That is only the beginning.
So, just how exploitative is The Briefcase? The first episode makes it clear just how little those near the bottom “matter” in the eyes of Moonves and his ilk. In its maiden outing, Briefcase featured two families. The first family featured consisted of a husband and wife and their 3 daughters. The father, the primary breadwinner, had a heart attack at 32, then lost his ice cream truck business when he was in a head on collision. His wife made around $300 a week working part-time, but that was hardly keeping them solvent. Family number two consisted of a nurse working the night shift to care for her baby (with another on the way) and her disabled, Iraq War veteran husband. He had lost his leg in the war and had to use a prosthetic to move around, which includes numerous flights of stairs leading to and from their apartment. Both families had piles of debt, dependent children, and the need to find a new lease on life, which is apparently supposed to amuse us.
Episode two has an even bigger bent to it. The two families have very specific needs, both of which are treated more like a sideshow than with any gravitas. John and Amanda Musolinos are forced to live apart the majority of the year due to finances, leaving Amanda ostensibly a single mother who is tasked with home schooling their autistic son. Josh and Susan Scott are the Musolinos’s counterparts, both of whom suffer from dwarfism and are in the process of adopting a child with dwarfism. The subtle jokes at their expense, and the complete dismissal of the Musolinos’s struggles raising a child with autism, is not just offensive, it’s insulting.
Both families are blind to the entire situation. When handed the infamous briefcase, they are told to keep the money, which leads to the inevitable break down and tears of thanks. The disgusting moment comes when they are informed about another family (who they know nothing about) that might need it more. Do you want to keep it, they ask, or will you be better people and help this other family out? Here is where we see just how much our country equates being poor to a moral failing on the part of those that are struggling. The choice is to look like a greedy villain, or prove themselves pious and virtuous enough to deserve being helped out of poverty. It is a test to see just how much the circumstances that brought them to bring of financial collapse are their fault.
Each family is given 72 hours to decide how to use the money. Each spouse is given a chance to go to the “bank” by themselves and divide up the money as they see fit. Then the other does the same. Finally, they come to a consensus and make a final decision before coming face to face with their counterparts. Between trips they are inundated with information. “Family X has this much coming in, but they are this much in debt,” they are told. “This family has a child with autism,” they may be told, “and he needs special care.” The manipulation is palpable. Watching the horror of a family given a life raft decide between saving their children or someone else’s family may just be the most sickening thing you will find on TV.
Just in case that wasn’t enough, the families also go into each others homes, unbeknownst to the other. This gives the audience a chance to “vet” the potential recipients in order to make sure they are poor enough and suffering enough to earn this windfall. If they have too many nice things or too large a house, then they certainly can’t deserve it, right? The very idea of judging poverty by someones possessions should be the stuff of a dystopian science fiction film, not reality.
What ends up being the most insidious and misleading part of this debacle is the simple fact that yes, these families are struggling, but we never hear a conversation about WHY they are struggling. One family mentions “at least we have health insurance,” as if that was something strange and rare instead of a safety net every living person should have. Education is never brought up, nor is family history or upbringing. Nowhere do you hear mention of income inequality or stagnating wages. It never discusses the anxiety and stress lower income families face, which leads to the staggering level of mental illness found in those below the poverty line. In fact, the show fuels animosity between spouses by forcing them to argue over the topic that kills more relationships than any other: money.
The most egregious insult perpetuated by The Briefcase is the fake altruism touted by the show. Those featured on the show are in a position that allows them to decline such a gift. Sure, they are in a bad situation, but they are able to keep a roof over their heads (one family is even building a new home), and food at the table. There are millions of Americans that would have to choose between keeping that money or starving. If CBS wanted to help families by giving them a lifeline, there are millions of families that they could gift the money to, no strings attached. Instead, we get a weekly vilification of poverty, and a chance to judge whether other people deserve to be helped, or if they just brought everything on themselves. Either CBS is being run by sociopaths, or the network has greatly underestimated the intelligence and dignity of the American people.
Until people like Moonves work to actively help those in need, it is up to people like us to step in. Helping those that need it most shouldn’t be done for TV cameras, it should be done to support those that need it.