In the “new golden age of television,” the most ambitious, scripted prestige fare is endlessly dissected while the rest of the broad television universe is ignored. In We’ll Watch Anything, The A.V. Club challenges the boundaries of television criticism by valiantly consuming anything on the dial. We’ll Watch Anything launches this week with CBS’ odious reality series, The Briefcase.
The pitch: In each episode of The Briefcase, two hard-luck families are handed $101,000 to help them get back on their feet financially. The money is free of conditions or obligations except for one small catch: Both families are faced with the choice to share the money with another family in need. Neither family knows the other is holding its own briefcase until the final reveal.
Could it be worth watching? It’s a long shot, but stranger things have happened. CBS has a decent track record with unscripted class warfare, having turned the British reality concept Undercover Boss into a surprisingly poignant, though often tone-deaf hit. Like that show, The Briefcase forces its participants into another person’s shoes in the hopes the experience will help them reevaluate what’s most important. The show comes from David Broome, who, as the creator of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, knows how to wring pathos out of everyday struggles.
What’s not to love? Unlike Undercover Boss, which lampoons the C-suite cluelessness of well-compensated executives, The Briefcase puts the screws to average, hard-working people whose sole offense is agreeing to participate in a reality show.
How was it? Excruciating, and that’s coming from someone who generally enjoys manipulative reality television (especially when the manipulation involves money.) For example, I loved the second season of ABC’s defunct spin-off Bachelor Pad, a reality competition in which former contestants on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette squared off against each other to win a cash prize. Forcing people to choose between love and money is a sound strategy for stirring up drama, and there’s no better group to put into that position than people who have such a snow-globe view of love and marriage that they thought it wise to appear on The Bachelor.
The Briefcase is built on the same love-versus-money idea, but it provides almost no ammunition with which to defend it. It’s easy to blame contestants for choosing to be subjected to reality-show nonsense, but these participants didn’t even agree to the show’s basic premise. They think they’re participating in a documentary about how families manage their finances, only to be surprised when a producer shows up at their door with the briefcase filled with $101,000 in cash. Why that specific amount? The extra grand is a bonus of sorts, a chunk of spending money the families are encouraged to spend immediately on whatever they choose. The producers then leave them with a decision: They can keep the money all for themselves, give it all away to another unidentified family, or split the money in whatever ratio they see fit. All the participants know about the other family is that they are “in as much need or more need” than they are. They have 72 hours to decide.
With a premise so distasteful, the show never has a shot at redemption, but the execution takes the mildly offensive concept and turns it into something outright loathsome. First, there’s the issue of what constitutes “financial need” in the world of The Briefcase. All of the families (at least in the two episodes screened for critics) describe themselves as middle class. Some are homeowners, all include at least one employed breadwinner, and none appear to be in a state of emergency. In other words, the families of The Briefcase are “television poor,” afflicted with enough financial hardship that a six-figure payout would be life-altering, but not in so dire a position as to make them depressing to watch. For example, the premiere features the Bergens of Matthews, North Carolina, a family struggling financially because their ice cream truck business isn’t doing as well as it could be. After receiving their $1,000 bonus stack, they don’t pay the light bill or stave off aggressive bill collectors, they rush out to pleasure shop with their three daughters. Are there families who could use the money more than the Bergens? Absolutely.
Of course, that’s the whole point of The Briefcase, and precisely why it’s such a repugnant exercise. The show forces its participants to decide whether to share the bounty without any knowledge of the other family, forcing them to guess how the other family’s financial position compares to their own. Instead of just helping the families, The Briefcase offers them help, then forces them to justify accepting that help by placing another family’s fate in their hands. That’s why featuring middle-class families was so crucial: Anyone in an immediate financial crisis would gleefully collect most or all of the money if convinced that few people have it worse than they do, but then there would be no show. Only families in a comfortable enough position to turn such a proposition into a lengthy debate make the cut. The decision is framed as if there’s no right answer, but the whole object of the show is to demonstrate how generous people can be if given the opportunity. The choice ultimately isn’t about whether to keep the money or give it away; it’s about coming up with the minimum amount of money they’ll accept in exchange for looking like greedy assholes on national television.
With no basis on which to make such a decision, the heads-of-household invariably start fighting about how much to give away and how much of the money they “need.” Without fail, one spouse insists on keeping the money while the other insists on giving at least some of it away, and whoever wants to keep the money is mercilessly shamed into “doing the right thing.” In the first of several text messages from the producers, one spouse (usually the one who wants to give all the money away) is sent to “the bank” alone, leaving them the sole decision on how much to take for themselves and how much to leave for the other family. Could they go together to make the deposit? Sure they could, but that would drain all of the fun out of watching them fight when one makes a decision against the other’s wishes. The parameters of the conflict are imaginary, but the marital strife they produce is very real.
Don’t worry, though, the families get to revise their decisions as they pass several checkpoints, learning more about the mystery family as they go along. After the initial division of assets, each family receives a memo detailing the other family’s financial situation, including their annual income and how much debt they owe. (When homeowners are involved, the producers specify that the debt amount includes the family’s mortgage, in case that changes the equation.) Then, to twist the knife back in the other direction, the families are ordered to tour the home of the family that stands to benefit from their generosity. In the premiere, Kim Bergen, matriarch of the Bergen Ice Cream Truck empire has a breakdown after touring the apartment of Dave and Cara Bronson from Manchester, New Hampshire. Everything changes once Kim notices Dave’s prosthetic limb, which he’s worn since losing his left leg to a roadside bomb during an active military tour. Driving from their home, Kim is such a wreck she orders the producers to pull the car over so she can retch on the side of the road. She was gung-ho about keeping the money for themselves until she sees the Bronsons are nearly identical to her own family when she and her husband were younger. “It was us minus a leg,” Kim says.
The final step is for the participants to meet the other family in person and tell them how much they’ve decided to share. Only then are the families informed that both of them had briefcases all along and were faced with the same devil’s bargain. To recap: In order to get the entirety of the $100,000, all the participants have to do is say they want it more than they want another family to have it, then repeatedly refuse to share even as deeply personal information about the other family is disclosed to them bit by bit. At the risk of giving away the ending, let’s just say everybody is at least kind of generous and they walk away from the experience saying they’ve been changed for the better, though it’s unclear how, aside from the infusion of cash.
There’s certainly no benefit to the viewer, who watches the whole show knowing about the double-briefcase “twist,” and therefore understands how needlessly cruel it is to manipulate innocent people. The Briefcase makes a fine thematic companion to Undercover Boss, another show that treats human empathy as some sort of oddity and congratulates people for displaying it with television cameras running. If empathy is equally baffling to you, The Briefcase will be fascinating. Otherwise, it’ll simply be an hour of watching people be psychologically tormented for no good reason.
Would you watch it again? Not even for $100,000, but possibly for $101,000.