By now you’ve heard of CBS’s new hit reality show, The Briefcase.
The one that dangles $100,000 in front of struggling families and gives them the dilemma of keeping the money to salve the grinding gears of their own difficult lives, or give some, or all, of the money away to another family also in dire straights.
Last week's debut episode (it airs Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Channel 2) cops out by introducing a second family, also in need, also given $100,000, and the families, after argument, tears and a bit of stress vomiting, end up giving the 100 grand to each other for the requisite happy ending, a reminder that these so-called “reality” shows are carefully stage-managed, and reflect actual reality in the same way that “The Blair Witch Project” is a real documentary.
The program, set to run for a trial six episodes, met a wail of universally negative reviews, standard with the arrival of almost any reality TV show. As always, critics think “a new low” has been reached. “The Briefcase plumbs new depths,” writes Leonard Pitts Jr. in the Miami Herald. “The Briefcase,” adds Todd VanDerWerff, on Vox, “scrapes the bottom of the barrel so thoroughly that it breaks through the barrel then starts scraping the bottom of the one beneath.”
First, this isn’t a new low, but the same old low. After watching the opening installation of The Briefcase, I called up a clip of Queen for a Day, the black-and-white era TV show, where housewives shared their tales of woe in return for some kind of relief. At the end of the episode I watched, the audience chooses among four women. First, Mrs. Jewel Ellis, in fake pearls. “Mrs. Ellis and her husband have had some bad luck, and she would like to make some money for them. She would like a washing machine to take in washing,” explains host Jack Bailey, who then reminds us that Mrs. Carol Williams wants “educational aids” for her brain damaged son; Mrs. Clarice Singer has a paralyzed brother and wants a medical bed “for he must spend his life on his stomach” and Mrs. Beverly Dolan, hands clasped, has five children under the age of 3 and want their chilly Oregon home properly heated.
Queen for a Day makes The Briefcase seem like Masterpiece Theatre, and while VanDer-Werff does mention it, he then seems to forget the 100 similar shows in between the two as he castigates this new cultural excrescence.
“The Briefcase literally forces the American lower class to compete with itself for table scraps bestowed on it by wealthy people who work in television.”
Which makes TV different than retailing...how? How is banking, with its 0.35 percent per year “High Yield Money Market Funds” any different? There’s an irony in the media lashing out at network TV for manifesting a phenomenon that’s all around us.
Which brings us to the second uncomfortable truth: Were The Briefcase not dramatizing the troubles facing these families grasping onto the bottom rung before insolvency and poverty, who would? The choice isn’t The Briefcase or some thoughtful examination of the hollowing out of America’s middle class. The choice is The Briefcase or The Bachelor. Pulling the heartstrings regarding the impoverished is a cheap trick, but it works in The Briefcase just as it worked for Dickens. Reality TV is garbage, but it’s also popular, because gazing upon the unfortunate is an entertainment that people savor, and one that goes back to the Story of Job. Queen for a Day milked ratings out of the pitiable downtrodden on radio and TV for nearly 20 years. Odd that some critics seem to think CBS invented it with The Briefcase.