‘The Briefcase’: Exploitative Reality TV At Its Worst

The Briefcase - CBS, Reality Shows
Source: CBS

Throughout the popularity of reality TV, there have been plenty of awful shows to hit the airwave. We’ve seen The Swan put a group of women through round after round of plastic surgery for the sake of a manufactured standard of beauty. Others have simply been inane depictions of pointless people, usually denoted by a “Real Housewives” preceding the city in its title. But CBS’s newest hit show takes the cake in terms of exploiting the less-fortunate, in the horrifically Faustian bargain posted by The Briefcase.

The basic concept of The Briefcase is simple enough. A struggling family is gifted with a briefcase containing $101,000. They are then given two choices: Keep the money, or give it another struggling family described to them by the show. Little do they know, the other family also has been given a similar briefcase and the same dilemma. On the surface, it seems like your run-of-the-mill reality TV social experiment, but you don’t have to drill down too far to see the rotten underbelly of this show.

Any family choosing to be “selfish” and keep the briefcase full of money that could put food on their table is guilted into feeling like they’ve doomed a similarly struggling family. It’s a rare form of psychological torture that Time even went so far as to dub a part of “the worst reality TV show ever.”

CBS executives in charge of green-lighting this new series are guilty of exploiting innocent, desperate people. Putting a six-figure sum of cash in front of people in despair and then making them feel guilty for taking the money is not something moral individuals do.

Huffington Post isn’t any kinder in their review, calling The Briefcase “a combination of the humiliation of publicly enduring pain for the promise of being rescued from financial ruin.”

What we have is the lowest common denominator in a genre of television where the bar is already set pretty low as it is. Perhaps the most unsettling part of all this though, is the fact that the show’s debut to 6.8 million viewers was the best of the ten reality series premieres aired by the “Big 4″ of networks over the last year (FOX, ABC, CBS, and NBC). Simply put, it’s not going anywhere, no matter how horrible its concept is. In an entertainment climate that allowed The Jersey Shore to continue on for six seasons, sometimes morbid fascination wins out over morals.

The reaction to this has come in the form of an online petition, that as of publish for this article, has reached almost 22,000 signatures. The petition calls for the cancelation of The Briefcase, citing it as “altruism porn” that “exploits the suffering of real families.” Unfortunately, it’ll take far more than a collection of signatures to get CBS to ax a series hauling in that many viewers. Anything short of viewers not tuning in will be folly, especially for a network concerned only with the bottom line (read: All networks).

So what does the future hold for the wildly exploitative show? Much of the negative critical fallout cuts both ways, giving The Briefcase a forbidden fruit appeal it likely wouldn’t have had before. Eventually though, the tides will turn on a show that overtly harms the lower-middle class of our country (aka the average network TV viewer). We can only hope that it doesn’t take long before this happens.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest

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