During the heyday of the TLC series “Trading Spaces,” several networks tried a similar variation of that hit show. In shows such “House Of Dreams” or “the Complex: Malibu”, the premise involved couples or families competing against each other in weekly renovation challenges. And at the end of the season, one of the families would get to keep the home they had spent the entire season remodeling.
Ultimately none of them were successful and while they all had their individual problems, the biggest one was that by the end of the season, viewers didn’t want to see the sad spectacle of families they’d grown to know and connect with emotionally lose out on their chance to win their dream home. After six or eight weeks you knew their story and remembered that this family had lost their previous home during the recession or that family had a handicapped child who needed a home that could accommodate his needs. Winning a home is a more visceral and substantial prize than bringing home a check for $25,000. A family home means something more than money. It can change lives and with those stakes watching worthy families missing out was just too painful an experience.
I had much the same reaction when I watched a couple of episodes of the new CBS reality series “The Briefcase,” which premieres this week. On the face of it, the show should be an uplifting story of deserving families who finally have the money to change their lives for the better. But the loathsome format of the show guarantees you’re likely to do more cringing than cheering during this extremely long hour of television.
Each episode features two families, both of whom are struggling financially. Each is given a briefcase filled with $101,000 and told that they have 72 hours to make a decision. They can keep all the money, give it all way or split the difference somehow. They’re told that whatever money they decide to give away will go to another deserving family. What they don’t know until the end of the process is that the other family is making the same decision with a similar briefcase.
As you can imagine, this process of balancing the substantial needs of your family against wanting to help someone who is also struggling is nerve-wracking and painful to watch. These are good people and ones that know all too well what it means to struggle to put food on the table. That’s why charities will tell you that they generally receive more money from the less fortunate than the wealthy. When you’ve been down, you know how difficult life can be and you want to help other people going through a similar challenge.
So each episode shows the two families struggling to make the right decision and they’re “helped” throughout the process by the show’s producers. The families receive several text message updates during the 72 hours giving them more info about the family they could decide to help. They’re even given the opportunity to walk through the other family’s empty house, giving them an intimate look at the struggles of these strangers.
At three points, the couples are given the chance to decide how much money they’ll keep and the amount they’ll give away. Each person gets one chance on their own, although it doesn’t count as the final decision. The third decision is final and is done by both adults. Then when the decision is finalized, the couples meet to reveal to the other family what decision they’ve made.
Without giving anything away, the results in the first two episodes were thoughtful and fair. And it’s true enough that these families end up with enough money to substantially improve their lives.
The biggest problem with “The Briefcase” is that it ultimately forces couples into participating in a televised process that is fraught with very public consequences. You could make an argument that deciding to keep all of the money is a very rational decision and yet knowing that your choice is televised makes that scenario much more unlikely.
And it’s one thing to participate in this type of premise willingly. Participants are told ahead of time that they are going to be part of a documentary on families struggling financially. It’s not until the moment they receive the briefcase that they are told of the production’s true purpose. Sure, in theory a family could turn down the chance to be part of the show.
But what struggling family is going to say no to a financial lifeline, no matter how distasteful the strings attached to the money? So they suffer through a very painful and public 72 hour process that sometimes resembles the dance monkeys go through at carnivals to get another banana.
It’s painfully uncomfortable watching these decisions play out, beginning with that moment when the couples are told that the $100,000 isn’t theirs until they make a decision about how much they’re going to give away. Every moment in their lives after that is awkward and unsettling. I suppose the point of “The Briefcase” is to show how giving Americans can be even when they can’t really afford to be. Certainly watching a husband and father who lost a leg fighting in Iraq arguing that other people have it much worse than he does is inspiring. But the amount of emotional pain inflicted on him during the 72 hours is tough to justify, merely for the chance to get it all on film.
“The Biggest Loser” creator and executive producer Dave Bloome is one of the executive producers of “the Briefcase” and I suppose producers hoped to have a show that was as emotionally uplifting. But while “the Biggest Loser” is about changing your life and your future, it’s also about determination and sacrifice. It’s not as if someone comes to the contestants on the show and informs them that they can lose 150 pounds…unless they want to give some or all of that weight loss to a stranger. The difference between “The Biggest Loser” and “The Briefcase” is the difference between real change brought about by perseverance and change brought about by the manipulations of the show’s producers.
After watching the two episodes CBS provided to critics, I didn’t feel as much inspired as I did appalled by the premise. It felt as if the participants were forced into the unenviable position of having to entertain America’s need for forced television intimacy so they could receive the money they needed to improve their lives. More than once I wanted it all to stop and while I’m happy these families received the help they needed, I’m sorry that I in some way participated in this degrading extravaganza.
“The Briefcase” premieres Wednesday, May 27th, 2015 on CBS.
Read more from this author at AllYourScreens.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aysrick