On The Briefcase, Poor Americans Have to ‘Prove’ Themselves

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The Bronsons, one family featured in the premiere of The Briefcase. Photo: CSB

In the 2014 fiscal year, Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp, earned over $54 million. That's down from his 2013 compensation of $66.9 million, but it's still a lot of money. Enough, in fact, that in one day, he makes more than double the annual median household income in the United States. Maybe he's worth it! Charge what the market will bear, etc.; CBS isn't just paying him to do his job, they're paying him not to do it for anyone else, either. But there's something really perverse about Les Moonves earning money based on the emotional and financial anguish of poor people, by making a game-theory spectacle of human suffering that he could end, himself, personally, if he wanted to. The people on The Briefcase are agonizing over $101,000 — a shitload of money to most of us. But not to Les Moonves. That's less than 0.2 percent of his income: $101,000 is to Les Moonves what $97 is to a person earning $52,000 per year.

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. In the two episodes CBS made available for review, the decision weighs incredibly heavily on all participants. One woman is so overcome that she vomits. Everyone talks about health insurance. Several people claim this is the hardest decision they've ever made. Many, many tears are shed. And perhaps unsurprisingly, people demonstrate impressive generosity. That's the point of the show, right? To show how generous people truly are? Surely these people were screened not just for emotive telegenics but also for proclivity toward magnanimity.

"We at least have health insurance," says an injured veteran whose family debt is larger than his annual family income; his wife is the sole breadwinner and works as a night-shift nurse, and the two are struggling to afford to move into a house outfitted for his disabilities. (It'll be more urgent when their second child is born in a few weeks.) We at least have health insurance. Part of me is moved by his kindness. And part of me wants to start throwing furniture in the street so we can get a new Les Miz going or something because oh my God, fuck everything. How much struggle are we expecting everyone to endure? And how much are we exploiting that struggle by turning it into entertainment?

A lot. We're exploiting it a lot. The Briefcase does it in a clear and methodical way, but we live in a culture that habitually depicts poor people or poverty as inherently other. In fact, The Briefcase avoids using the word poor at all: Participants are repeatedly described as "hardworking, middle-class families." But overwhelmingly the families are in extremely dire financial circumstances. If you're utterly financially unstable, is that really middle class? If you cry every day knowing that you will be unable to provide for your children in meaningful ways, is that middle class? If, in your 40s, you become certain that you will still be in debt when you die, are you middle class? Can homeowners still be considered "poor"? How old must a car be before driving it invalidates a person as "poor"?

The Briefcase plays into this class anxiety by setting up the classic American pastime of figuring out in what ways these people are being poor wrong. The families visit each other's homes and look through each other's bills: For the participants, this is presumably meant to engender sympathy and greater commonality, but for viewers, this plays as, "let's examine what they eat, what they wear, how they get to work, where they live in the first place, and ignorantly identify those things we perceive to be not poor enough, not sufficiently humble."

America perceives poverty as a moral failure, which is why the participants on The Briefcase have to perform generosity to such an extreme degree. These people have to "prove" themselves as virtuous — to themselves, to one another, but in particular to a viewing audience at home — to show how unlike other poor people they are. We're not really poor, we just had a string of really bad luck, unlike those other people who are poor on purpose. I'm not suggesting the families on the show aren't actually nice. In fact, many of them seem incredibly loving and wonderful, people any of us would be lucky to know. But even assholes are entitled not to live a life of abject suffering. Why does the burden of helping "struggling" people fall on other struggling people? Is Les Moonves pulling his car over to throw up because he's so paralyzed by trying to do the right thing? If he is, make a show about that. If he's not, make a show about why not.

The Briefcase's altruism pornography lets us think that shows like this "help." I mean, those families could have gotten nothing, right? At least this way they have $202,000 between them! Except that's not what anyone actually cares about, because if it were, this wouldn't be a TV show: It would be a charity. I'd settle for it being a rallying point, something we could all look to and say, "Wow, we need more and better social safety nets, a more compassionate society, and a more humanity-based approach to understanding, preventing, and alleviating poverty." And maybe that will happen. But I doubt it.