Reason number 4,587,900 to never watch television again has come in the form of latest CBS reality show 'The Briefcase'.
Billed as a show that, "features hard-working American families experiencing financial setbacks," the producers present the families with "a briefcase containing a large sum of money and a potentially life-altering decision: they can keep all of the money for themselves, or give all or part of it to another family in need."
Welcome to America in 2015, where gigantic corporate conglomerates dangle large quantities of cash in front of poor people, then make them cry as they grapple with feelings of shame over accepting it, and all for your viewing entertainment. Just watch the nauseating trailer for the show that aired last week:
The exploitative dynamics at play here are truly grotesque: rich people in the media create a game show where poor people are made to fight for resources so that those rich people in the media can get richer when poor people tune in to watch it.
Since the explosion of 'The Jerry Springer Show' in the early 90's, TV networks have poured their talents into finding creative ways of exploiting poor people for entertainment. From day time talk shows featuring highly dysfunctional families fighting it out over paternity tests to psychologically damaged people desperate for plastic surgery, reality television always finds a way to enterprise from the misery of economic misfortune.
'The Briefcase' is particularly disgusting though given its pretentious piousness. Watching struggling families forced to feel guilty about taking money isn't just exploitative, it is downright cruel. In the two episodes CBS made available for review, one woman found the decision so traumatic that she actually vomited. These moments of intense anguish are no doubt great for ratings, but not so much for the financially struggling participants of the show who are under extreme pressure in their daily lives anyway.
The premise of the show also plays into the never ending mythology that individual responsibility is the sole determinant of material wealth. As statistic after statistic proves, wealth is largely inherited in America, and social mobility practically non existent. Yet these families are made to feel like their financial situation is their own doing, and as supposedly 'middle class' Americans, it is their duty to help those less fortunate. As Margaret Lyons writes in Vulture:
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
The truth is, there isn't much of middle class left in America, and those who define themselves as such are struggling under the weight of extreme debt and the spiraling cost of living. Redistributing wealth is not the responsibility of economically fragile families - it is the responsibility of people like the President of CBS, Les Moonves, who pocketed over $54 million in 2014. But rich people redistributing their wealth would be socialism, while watching poor people fight over charity is as American as apple pie.