Recently, I watched the first episode of “The Briefcase,” the new CBS “reality” show. I found myself vaguely ashamed for doing so. I kept reminding myself that I had to watch it in order to write about it.
Myself wasn’t buying it. Myself wanted a shower.
It will probably not shock you to learn that your humble correspondent has no love for so-called reality television. Somehow, on the road from “Candid Camera” to “An American Family” to various real housewives of various real American cities, the once novel and seemingly harmless idea of focusing television cameras on the lives of ordinary people curdled into a species of “entertainment” so invasive that the camera might as well be a proctological device.
In that sense, you could argue there is nothing new, nor even particularly noteworthy, about “The Briefcase,” a summer series that premiered last week. Its premise is that a struggling family is given a briefcase full of cash — $101,000 — with the stipulation that they may choose to keep all of the money, keep some and give the rest to a second down-on-its luck family or keep none of it and give the entire fortune to that other family.
It is a rigged morality tale, a financially strapped couple wrestling with questions of self-preservation versus altruism. In that situation, should you be selfish or selfless? At one point, each couple is taken to tour the other couple’s home while those people are away. They rifle through the other family’s overdue bills, inspect their busted appliances. The twist is that unbeknownst to each couple, the other has received an identical briefcase, has taken the same tour, and is wrestling with the same question: What is the moral thing to do?
Actually, if anyone really cared about these families’ problems, the moral course would be obvious. Let CBS (estimated value, according to Forbes, approximately $30 billion) give each struggling family what it needs to get back on its feet. Problem is, the moral course would not be the most entertaining course, would deprive the rest of us of watching these men and women argue, weep, shoot death glares at one another, confess intimate fears to the camera and, yes, vomit in emotional distress, as they try to make this inherently unfair decision.
Look, it is not exactly news that “reality television” is a cesspool. For those who enjoy it, that’s apparently part of the attraction. But “The Briefcase” plumbs new depths. CBS has made a calculated bet here that you and I would not mind seeing real-life poverty as mass entertainment. So far, they’re right. According to Variety, “The Briefcase” was the most watched Wednesday-night series on television last week. Almost 7 million of us tuned in to find diversion in the exploitation of financially and emotionally vulnerable people.
It is particularly, well … rich that this comes from CBS. In 2002, you may recall, that network proposed to take a poor and unsophisticated rural family and plunk them down in a Beverly Hills mansion for America’s amusement. There was an outcry and CBS was shamed out of airing “The Real Beverly Hillbillies.” But apparently, that was a Pyrrhic victory. Thirteen years later, here comes “The Briefcase.” Thirteen years later, in a country where “the poors” are called “takers,” “moochers” and scavenging animals, that same network now uses them to fill the space between commercials for soft drinks and erectile-dysfunction pills.
There is something blinkered about the morality that makes such a thing not simply possible, but popular. There are 45 million Americans submerged below the poverty line. That’s one in every seven of us, many living one medical diagnosis, one broken transmission, one missed paycheck, from disaster. Friends, that is tragedy, not entertainment.
And pity any nation that can no longer tell the difference.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.