Here’s how New York magazine describes The Briefcase, a new show on CBS that’s about to enter its third week.
The Briefcase, premiering on CBS at 8 p.m. Wednesday, features “American families experiencing financial setbacks,” to use the network’s terminology. The family is given a briefcase with $101,000 in it, and then they’re shown another family who’s “experiencing financial setbacks.” They have to decide how much money to keep and how much to give the other people, or whether they want to keep it all for themselves; neither family knows both families have in fact received a briefcase, and that their counterparts are also deliberating over if and how to share the money.
Here in the UK, the BBC (of all places) has a show with a similar feel to it, called Britain’s Hardest Grafter. The show has already been nicknamed The Hunger Games. The Guardian explains it thus:
The five-part BBC2 series will pit contestants against each other in a series of jobs and tasks with the “least effective workers” asked to leave until one is crowned champion. The winner will receive a cash prize of about £15,500, the minimum annual wage for workers outside London.
Both shows are cruel and gimmicky. Both have an element of stunt or prank to them. There’s a word for this on the internet: it’s called trolling. And you know what? I absolutely love this new breed of “troll the poor” television, not least because it’s honest about what working people are most concerned about.
“Britain’s Hardest Grafter is a serious social experiment for BBC2 which investigates just how hard people in the low wage economy work,” said the BBC. Which is obviously total wank, but good on them for dressing up this gloriously sadistic spectacle as a social justice mission of mercy.
I actually really relate to the families in The Briefcase. Not in the sense of being poor or making sacrifices or having a hard life or anything, just that money really matters and working out how much of it to give away when you don’t strictly have to is just as much of a conundrum when you’re wealthy as it is when you’re not.
Introducing working families to the practical challenges of altruism when they don’t have money means they will make better choices in future generations, when one of them has won the lottery or when son number six somehow makes it to Harvard. They’ll become patrons of the Royal Opera House, for instance, instead of donating to Lefty charities like the RSPCA.
Obviously, the sanctimonious windbags in the press are up in arms about The Briefcase and Britain’s Hardest Grafter. They say these shows recall the worst excesses of the Roman amphitheatre and that poverty porn shows just how decrepit our morals have become and how painfully scraped the commissioning barrel must now be.
Viewers, of course, don’t seem very upset about either programme – perhaps because they’re too busy enjoying the emotional car-crashes on screen. I’m not saying the instinct to laugh at the underprivileged is virtuous, or that I feel particularly good about myself after indulging, but let’s be clear about why some columnists are really getting upset.
The only reason media types are squealing about these new shows is that their currency is explicitly cash, rather than emotion. For decades we’ve enjoyed exploitative spectacles such as The Jerry Springer Show and Ricki Lake. There’s nothing new about The Briefcase except that the whole show revolves around hard cash.
Money always makes middle-class people feel anxious, which is why the commentariat is tut-tutting over this new generation of troll the poor programming. What they seem to forget is that regardless of the details of the format, each episode of The Briefcase gives away a whopping $202,000 to two families who need it. Which is all anyone appearing on the show is going to care about in the long run.