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The new reality show The Briefcase pits the debt-ridden against each other. No. Really.

The prospect of how much money to share with the other family brings tears to one family's eyes.
The prospect of how much money to share with the other family brings tears to one family's eyes.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I'm used to reality shows with premises as jaw-droppingly exploitative and gross as that of CBS's new series The Briefcase, which debuted Wednesday, May 27. But I'm not used to seeing a show like that executed this poorly, one that scrapes the bottom of the barrel so thoroughly that it breaks through the barrel, then starts scraping the bottom of the one beneath.



The Briefcase features a truly terrible idea at its center, but what's almost worse than that is how dull and repetitive it gets almost immediately. It's one thing to have a brazen reality show rub your nose in how terrible it is while daring you to keep watching with greater and greater heights of depravity. It's quite another to have a show essentially shrug 10 minutes in and say, "Yep. This is all there is. Enjoy the next hour."

On some level, The Briefcase literally forces the American lower class to compete with itself for table scraps bestowed upon it by wealthy people who work in television. But it's filmed with all the saccharine sentiment of a store-brand greeting card, and it's about as boring a TV show as you'll see this year.

There's a version of this show filled with horrible people doing horrible things to each other, with the producers the most horrible participants of all. You might hate yourself for watching that show, but you at least wouldn't be able to tear your eyes from it. Instead, what we're left with is a lukewarm pile of goop.

The show's premise is deeply horrifying

At the center of each episode of The Briefcase are two families, both of whom are deeply in debt and continuing to call themselves "middle class," when it's desperately clear that they're clinging to the absolute bottom rungs of that ladder with all their might. They, of all people, need help, and television is here to give them that help.

The idea of a TV show swooping in and giving someone from the middle or lower class a life-changing opportunity is the basis for much of reality television, to say nothing of the game shows and talent shows that gave birth to the genre. The old show Queen for a Day, in which housewives competed to have the saddest story so as to become the woman in the title, is not so very far removed from, say, Shark Tank, which lets entrepreneurs seek investment from successful business tycoons.

So there's nothing inherently wrong with any of this. There's a way to put people's hardships on television and offer a kind of inspirational uplift at the end, to suggest that if you work hard and do everything just right, you, too, might be gifted with a lot of money on a TV show. And The Briefcase gets one big thing right. It doesn't blame the families on the show for the dire straits they find themselves in, as too many shows in this subgenre do. (See: Lifetime's mercifully short-lived The Fairy Jobmother.)

The problem comes when the two families are essentially forced to compete to see who has the saddest story ... without even really knowing they're competing. At the episode's beginning, each family is given a briefcase with $101,000 in it. Of that money, $1,000 is spending money. But the other $100,000 is money that the family is told it can use in one of three ways. It can keep all of it, it can give some of it to another needy family, or it can give all of it to another needy family.

What both families don't know is that the other family is weighing this same decision at the same time, in another state entirely. The premiere features a down-on-his-luck ice cream truck driver's family and the family of a war veteran who has lost a leg, both wrestling with how much (if any) money to give to the other family. They agonize and agonize, and the show does everything it can to ratchet up their agony.

The producers of the show come in to drop off the briefcase, then force the families to go through several wrenching stages of figuring out just how selfless or generous they're going to be. They're asked to sum up how much money they'd feel like giving away right now, both separately and as couples. And in between these stages, the producers text them with more information about the family they could serve as unlikely benefactors toward, slowly turning those families from abstract, imaginary figures into actual human beings.

It's gut-churning, and not in a good way.

The show ignores the awfulness at its core, to its detriment

The Briefcase

The two families meet at the episode's end. (CBS)

What The Briefcase is trying to do is clear. It wants viewers at home to realize that they, too, could be in a tough situation like the ones depicted onscreen. And it wants said viewers to weigh their own desire to help their families with their theoretical generosity. It wants, in other words, to foster empathy.

But it can never quite escape the central flaw of its premise. The money in that briefcase came from somewhere, specifically the producers and CBS itself.

If a family theoretically decided to keep all of it and got all of the money from the other family, that $200,000 would stay with them, but it wouldn't really be their fault, nor would they be selfish, necessarily. The producers of the show have taken a big TV budget (where this kind of cash is extremely small potatoes) and given it to people who need that money most, then taunted them with the prospect of snatching that money away at the last moment, simply because they hope to turn charity into a game show.

To be sure, there could be a sick thrill to this, somewhere along the line, but the series seems aware of just how mercenary and exploitative its role in the process is, which means that it buries everything under many, many layers of sap in the hopes that you won't notice.

Plus the show never overcomes the central structural flaw it has, which is that it simply turns into a long series of arguments between spouses about which of these two families (their actual family or the theoretical one in all those text messages) is harder up for the cash. The show simply can't find a way to make this anything other than repetitive, which quickly saps its momentum.

The fact of the matter is that reality TV shows like this so often draw their participants from the sorts of places you don't usually see on TV, from faded cities and small towns that are nothing like the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles settings of so many scripted shows. But reality TV is also perpetually terrified of seeming too real, of bumping up against the uncomfortable economic realities of many of its viewers.

As I wrote for the Baffler last year:

When reality TV manages to directly address the financial plight of Middle Americans, it does so in fugitive, fragmentary glimpses. In most cases, these glimpses occur entirely by accident and are swiftly shunted aside. But they turn up nonetheless; any time you send cameras out into the middle of the United States in search of something that smacks of documentary realism, you’re all but certain to find someone struggling to make ends meet while poking at the embers of the American dream.

And that's exactly what happens on The Briefcase, which walks up to something big and terrifying and hard to understand — the collapse of the American middle class — and then does everything it can to run far, far away from what it's uncovered.

The Briefcase airs Wednesdays on CBS at 8 pm Eastern. It's available to stream on