The Briefcase: Drama of a middle class gone broke

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Iñaki Fdez. de Retana's picture
Joshua and Susan Scott of CBS's the briefcase.
Joshua and Susan Scott were featured in episode 2 of CBS's The Briefcase, a show that leaves us wondering if middle income America is still middle class and if their hardships should be cheap game show entertainment?

Iñaki Fdez. de Retana

Exploitative, banal, gaudy, despicable.

They are just but a few of the adjectives that come to mind in trying to describe ‘The Briefcase,’ a new CBS reality show that makes use of people's hardships as light entertainment fare.

‘What would you do if $101,000 landed on your doorstep?,’ reads the premise of this 6-episode reality TV show that premiered on May 27.

A family in financial need is given a briefcase full of money. The condition: In 72 hours, they have to decide whether they want to give some to another family in need. The catch: They do not know that the other family also had a briefcase presented to them under the same conditions.

“‘The Briefcase’ is an eye-opening look into what matters most in people’s lives, taking the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride with a shocking ending each week,” said Dave Broome, creator and executive producer of the show previously known for ‘The Biggest Loser’ (2004).

“I've been incredibly impressed by just how generous Americans are, even with shrinking paychecks and rising debt, when there’s little left to give.”

As a starter, families are given $1,000 to spend on what they want most. Then, as they are briefed on the other family’s financial hardships, each partner in the family decides how much money to deposit in their bank account and how much to leave in the briefcase for the other family. Within the last few hours before making a decision, they make a visit the other family’s empty house to evaluate on “how bad they are really doing.” In the end, they meet in Los Angeles and open up the suitcases to reveal how much they give each other.

The Bronsons of New Hampshire — Dave, an Iraq war veteran who lost a leg in combat and has undergone multiple surgeries, and Cara, pregnant and working night shifts as a nurse — and the Bergins of North Carolina — raising three teenage daughters with no health insurance, they are trying to make it with the wife’s $15.50 an hour salary — were featured in the first episode. The second featured Joshua and Susan Scott, with a short stature resulting from a medical condition, who want to have a child — “little people with big dreams” as CBS describes them.

Ironically labeled as middle class, the families featured in ‘The Briefcase’ live with thousands of dollars in debt, which would equate outright poverty in other parts of the word if it wasn’t for the credit cards and loans that disguise poverty in the U.S. The context of new car, insurance plan, and credit card commercials that accompany the show’s broadcast, and fund it, serve show a world out of reach to the show's subjects.

The values fostered by this reality show are based on money and consumerism. The first thing the Bronsons do with $1,000 is to go on a snowmobile ride, while the Bergins go to the shopping mall. Come on!

What solutions does the show present to ease the necessity in these families? What constructive argument does it present to pay their bills other than a ‘deus ex machina’ briefcase full of money that came from a CBS executive producer loaded with money?

None. Just bread and circus to the people.

“[The show] takes poverty porn, class anxiety, emotional manipulation and exploitation and packages them all neatly into a pretty despicable hour of primetime television,” writes Kali Holloway in an article published in Alternet with the subhead ‘Leave it to a billionaire network to ask those down on their luck to fight over money’.

“The whole thing is, in a word, gross,” continues Holloway. “It is a stark acting out of how the wealthiest ask those with far less to battle over scraps, to be generous in ways they would never consider, to smile for the camera through tears for our own entertainment.”

Meanwhile, Larry Wilmore said on Comedy Central's The Nightly Show that “CBS has found a new way to exploit the underprivileged for the sake of ratings.”

All reality shows are innately exploitative. But what is despicable about ‘The Briefcase’ is how it exploits people who live in the fringes of poverty — who live paycheck to paycheck, have medical conditions, lack health insurance… — for entertainment’s sake. It is humiliating.

But despite its controversy, the show seems to be doing well with audiences. In its debut episode on May 27, ‘The Briefcase’ was seen by almost 7 million viewers.

Broome is already working on a new reality series for NBC titled S.T.R.O.N.G. (Start to Realize Our Natural Greatness), about “everyday people looking to get into better shape.”

The Briefcase airs on CBS on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

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